When race day finally arrived, Axion was among 15 teams that qualified. On March 13, 2004, the Axion team steeled itself as their cobbled-together robot prepared to race nearly 150 miles to Nevada. The starter waved the flag, and the race was on.
"We actually went negative miles," Kehaly recalled good-naturedly. "We ended up behind that starting line."
The race was a disaster. No team came anywhere near the finish line. A vehicle built by a team from Carnegie Mellon University traveled the greatest distance - a paltry seven and a half miles. Many teams and observers said the course was largely to blame. The terrain was, they claim, exceedingly harsh in the first few miles. Regardless, the $1 million prize went unclaimed. But DARPA would later announce another race for 2005, this time on a new course and $2 million for the winner.
2005 and Now
The 2005 race was a huge success compared to the year before. Several teams actually finished the race - the winner was Stanley, a vehicle built by a team from Stanford University. Stanley completed the race in just less than seven hours. Axion's Jeep, named Spirit, made it 66 miles before becoming bogged down in a sandy stretch, ultimately finishing seventh. Kehaly was pleased with the performance but felt Spirit needed more intelligence.
DARPA did not schedule a race in 2006. However, the agency announced an urban race for November 2007. This time, the cars would race on the streets of Victorville, Calif., instead of in the desert surrounding the city. Axion searched for a better brain for Spirit, and, in late 2006, it arrived in an unusual place - inside Sony's new gaming console, the PlayStation 3 (PS3). The Cell Processor, an extremely powerful new microprocessor developed jointly by Sony, IBM and Toshiba, powers the PS3. At about $600 for a 60 GB model, the PS3 was a very high-end processor for not much money. Axion had found their new brain, now they needed an operating system.
"As luck would have it, I recently stumbled upon Yellow Dog Linux [YDL] and figured we could convert one of our Dell servers into a hopped-up PS3 to do some processing," Kehaly said. "I checked with the team during our weekly conference call. My team is great at [artificial intelligence] and we bought a copy of YDL and installed it on a PS3."
YDL is an open source operating system designed by Terrasoft Solutions to run on IBM Cell systems like the PlayStation 3. Axion already had success with Linux in the past, so this PS3-YDL combination was a perfect fit. They fitted the PS3 on the Dell server rack already in Spirit and started preparing for November.
"I've been thinking about replacing our Dell servers with a cluster of PS3s," Kehaly said, amused that a gaming and movie machine might be the key to winning the race.
Giving credence to Kehaly's idea of moving to a PS3 cluster, recent reports from the gaming industry have shown the PlayStation 3 has a failure rate of 0.02 percent - in other words, an astoundingly reliable machine - perfect for the cramped, hot and dirty world inherent to auto racing.
In late October, Spirit seemed to perform well in the qualification event. The driverless Jeep was busy managing left turns through oncoming traffic, safely - and eerily - making the turns at the appropriate time. Some turns were close calls, but by and large, the robot appeared to be doing well. Unfortunately for the Axion team, however, DARPA judges eliminated the team from further competition. Axion, like 24 other teams, would not race in the main event - leaving just 11 teams to compete in November.
After the qualification event, Kehaly was understandably unhappy.
"I thought we did well," he said. "The judges thought otherwise."
For more on the DARPA Grand Challenge, watch our special report on GTtv.