Would you believe that by combining Linux, a Sony PlayStation 3, some servers and an industrial air conditioner, you could make a robot? Bill Kehaly did, and thrice entered such a machine into the DARPA Grand Challenge, a race where dozens of robotic cars compete to navigate a racecourse without help from a human driver.

The story of Kehaly's involvement in the Grand Challenge begins in the vast expanse of the western Pacific Ocean where hundreds of small islands - Guam, Palau, the Marshall Islands and other small bits of paradise - make up the region known as Micronesia. It was here that Kehaly launched his latest in a string of entrepreneurial ventures - a Micronesian water bottling company.

Kehaly already had owned a San Francisco consulting firm, served as an adviser to Warner Bros., managed finances and logistics for eToys.com, and invented a digital, pen-based statistics charting system used by numerous Major League Baseball teams. In 2003, while in Micronesia helping get Milo Water off the ground, Kehaly read a newspaper article about something called the DARPA Grand Challenge.

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is the real-life counterpart to the Q Branch from James Bond films. The agency builds and tests all manner of strange and amazing devices, many of which never leave DARPA labs. Some, however, make their way into the world as military hardware, and occasionally, into everyday use.

When Kehaly read a newspaper blurb about the race, something clicked.

"I had been thinking of ways to try to market [Milo Water]," he recalled. "When I read the article, I thought, 'If I found a team, I could dress up my old Jeep to look like a Milo bottle and then have this water bottle drive itself through the Mojave Desert.'"

Never afraid to take a risk, Kehaly ran with the idea and started searching for a team of engineers who could help him build a water bottle on wheels that could pilot itself. At a DARPA autonomous racing conference, a team of University of San Diego alumni that had spent years building robots was looking for a leader. It just so happened Kehaly was there looking for a team.


Gentlemen, Start Your AI
The first DARPA Grand Challenge took place in 2004 amidst the rocks and sagebrush of the Mojave Desert. As an incentive for the racers, DARPA put up a $1 million prize for the winner. The designated racecourse was to begin outside of Barstow, Calif., roughly parallel to Interstate 15, for 142 miles to Primm, Nev. For Kehaly and his team - newly dubbed Axion Racing - the race to transform the Jeep into an Autobot was on.

Right away, it became apparent that one of the original ideas, turning the Jeep into a water bottle, wouldn't be feasible. Instead, the Axion team - many members of which had backgrounds in building fighting robots for reality TV shows, such as Robot Wars - gathered a heap of the necessary equipment to give the Jeep a brain of its own.

The vehicle was outfitted with four Dell servers running Linux and numerous cameras and detection systems to help it navigate the course's terrain, including an infrared camera, a 3-D LADAR (laser detecting and ranging) system - which can see grass, water, rocks, etc. - an RGB (red, green, blue) camera, which spots obstacles in the vehicles path and a Northrop Grumman INS (inertial navigator device)/GPS.

Four Intel Xeon processors served as the vehicle's brain, running everything from "sight" to the mechanical gas and brake system. If the Jeep applies the brake, the accelerator is automatically halted, whereas when the Jeep depresses the gas pedal, the brake is automatically released.

Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen is the former editor of FutureStructure.