Outsiders challenged big guys at robot car race

VICTORVILLE, California (Reuters) - Harvest was a little tougher this year for Indiana farmer Mac Gray -- he loaned his satellite-positioning unit to a couple of friends building a robotic car.

When the U.S. Department of Defense sponsored its third robot vehicle race, major universities jumped into the game.

Sponsors from Volkswagen to Google followed, to the point that the robotic 2007 Urban Challenge pit stop area this weekend looked more like a corporate advertisement than a college dorm room.

Big partnerships won all three prizes announced on Sunday, but some of the most unexpected victories came by outsiders before the final race, from German universities to friends building a robotic joyride.

Mac Gray gave his satellite unit and some welding help to friends Richard Bletsis and Mahesh Chengalva.

Chengalva wrote a computer program using his children’s Matchbox cars for testing, then tweaked it to power a smaller four-wheeled scooter that pulled around his kids in a wagon.

Bletsis designed a system for the car with $50 Web cameras, and the team was invited to the qualifying event in California -- where the car went kaput.

“When we run, we run almost as well as the big boys,” Chengalva said.

“With one computer we can do what others take 40,” added Bletsis, whose Web site,, shows off the robotic vehicle.

German universities plowed into the robot race, getting four cars to the semifinals, two of which were finalists.

Neither made it to the finish line but a car named Caroline, by a group of five institutes at the Braunschweig University of Technology -- sponsored by Volkswagen -- ran the course in novel ways, taking a series of right turns, for instance to avoid taking a left it deemed too dangerous.

“For the German universities, it is a way to show they are on the same level as MIT or Stanford,” said Lars Wolf, one of Caroline’s team.

The least expensive finalist was a 1996 Subaru outfitted with a bargain-basement $150,000 worth of sensors. Created by a six-person team based at the University of Central Florida, the old car with swirling range-finders and chirping sounds had the charisma of Star Wars drone R2D2 but ended up in a driveway during the last race.

Project manager Ben Patz blamed the 11-year-old car, not the robotic additions.

“I suspect we had a mechanical problem, which is real disappointing,” he said. “We could have failed earlier. I wish we’d failed tomorrow.”

The top three teams, with million-dollar government grants and sponsors, were impossible to beat, Patz said. “But we could have been fourth,” he added.

In fact, the fourth to finish the race was a relatively humble entry from the University of Pennsylvania and Lehigh University, which bolted an old laser unit to a Toyota Prius and made do with a small team -- and some support from Lockheed Martin Corp.

It did get one of the government $1 million grants, and more than others, the Penn team looked exhausted and pleasantly dazed after the race.

Asked to sum up his feelings, Lehigh PhD candidate Jason Derenick perked up to say: “How do you think? We finished. I feel wonderful.”