Autonomous Robots in the Desert: DARPA Grand Challenge 10th Anniversary

Written by Russ Johnson

This week, robotic car nerds and grease monkeys will celebrate the 10th anniversary of the first DARPA Grand Challenge, which offered a million-dollar prize to anyone who could create an autonomous robotic vehicle that could steer its way from Barstow, California to a casino near Las Vegas without human intervention. Like a tumbleweed, our Russ Johnson rolled into the Mojave desert to shoot a video at the starting line. — A car that can drive itself, without human help, is now for real. In 2004, however, it was still but a mirage in the California desert.

Ten years ago I perched myself on a bench at Slash-X Ranch, a road stop saloon and corral in the Mojave Desert near Barstow, California, to cheer on 15 robotic vehicles attempting make it to Nevada all by their lonesome, without human intervention. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the U.S. military’s skunkworks, offered a million-dollar prize to anyone who could pull it off.

DARPA Grand Challenge 2004 - Photo Credit: Russ Johnson

DARPA Grand Challenge 2004 – Photo credit: Russ Johnson

You didn’t have to bribe a congressman or be a military contractor to take part. This was Woodstock for robotic nerds and grease monkeys. Entries came from companies, universities, even high schools. Earlier in the year I watched a go-cart spinning around a frozen lake in upstate New York, being tested by a bunch of guys from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. An economy model, it was powered by Linux and an off-the-shelf Mini-ITX motherboard. In contrast, Terramax was a thundering 30,000-pound truck entered by the Oshkosh truck company. Its only human control was a stop switch … a good thing.


TerraMax – Photo crcdit: Russ Johnson

Air Force Col. Jose Negron, who ran the show in 2004, said, “Robot planes are easy, they don’t face obstacles other than other planes.” This course was 142 miles of utility roads, switch-backs, severe elevation changes, blind turns and sheer drops, not to mention cacti, tortoises, rocks and maybe a few UFOs and dead mobsters. Twenty biologists charted all the desert tortoise burrows close to the route and placed protective pens over them. Three hours before the start of the race, finalists were given a CD containing the latitude and longitude of about 2000 points along the way.

DARPA Million Dollar Check - Grand Challenge 2004

DARPA Million Dollar Check – Grand Challenge 2004 – Photo credit: Russ Johnson

Cheerleaders paraded a million-dollar blank check around the corral. Then the race was on. Here is a video I made at the start.

Pretty obvious from the video that the tortoises had nothing to worry about. No entry made it to the final destination, which was the lot at Buffalo Bill’s Casino in Primm, Nevada. The favored, Carnegie Mellon University’s Sandstorm, a converted Humvee, went the furthest distance, 7.32 mi, before getting hung up on a rock. Some vehicles wandered off into the desert as if they were having “senior moments.” One entry couldn’t move around an obstacle because its team neglected to engineer reverse into its program. Another entry stalled after a section of barbed wire fence got wound around its axle.

Several didn’t even make it out of the arena. A two-wheeler fell over at the starting line, and one vehicle plowed into a barrier protecting the press box.

Maybe the next year would be better …

Well, yes. In 2005, DARPA upped the ante to $2 million and five teams, including the Terramax beast, completed the course. A Stanford University vehicle name “Stanley” took the prize, however, with a winning time of 6 hours, 53 minutes.

In 2007, the DARPA Urban Challenge put contenders in a mock urban environment and the latest contest, in 2012, focused on humanoid robots for emergency maintenance.

This week, some of the gang from 2004 are holding a reunion in Las Vegas.

For, I’m Russ Johnson.

Based in Sonoma, California, Russ Johnson is the founder of Travelmedia and a senior editor covering travel. Email him at and follow him @connectedtravlr.