Another dollop of controversy has been dished out on DARPA's $1million Grand Challenge robot race with an early version of the planned route for the contest leaking onto the Web.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has posted the Grand Challenge race map as part of a safety review process ahead of the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) event, which is scheduled to be run in early March. DARPA originally told competitors that the course would not be revealed to competitors until two hours before the start of the race. This secrecy was meant to make life tougher on competitors prepping robot vehicles for the contest and to mimic real world conditions.
Some competitors have already started charging that an early glimpse at the map gives certain racers an unfair advantage. Those teams that were relying on detailed early mapping for their vehicles will now have a very solid idea of what to expect. DARPA, however, argues that the release of the map was not a leak at all. Instead, the map, which shows a number of possible routes, still leaves much to the imagination.
"Part of the environmental review process was to make the map public for comment," said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker. "It was not a premature thing. The maps show a thousand or more miles of possible routes."
The map does point to several options DARPA may ultimately choose for the race with the help of a color-coding system that indicates possible paths. But while the various routes cover a large swath of territory, the total scope of the course has clearly been narrowed down.
A few competitors see this early release of information as a major problem.
"This makes the Grand Challenge pointless," writes one robot racer on a DARPA message board. "It's not about autonomous vehicles any more. It's about preprogrammed ones. That's not what DARPA said this was about. Look at the introduction to the rules for what DARPA originally claimed they wanted. This isn't it."
The Grand Challenge event will have 25 teams send off their robot vehicles in a race across the Mojave Desert. From start to finish, the vehicles will drive themselves across the 200 mile route without any human help. The first one to reach Las Vegas in under ten hours wins a $1 million prize put up by DARPA.
We've covered a number of the past rule changes made by DARPA which have angered competitors, including the government agency's last minute alteration of the team selection process. Concerns about the way the race is being handled have prompted the newly formed International Robot Racing Federation to propose a new contest. The IRRF event is scheduled to be held in September and will be open to contestants from around the globe.
One interesting twist on the map leak has a Los Angeles-based company offering to overfly the course with laser mapping and photographic equipment. The information will be go up for sale to the Grand Challenge teams. ®