Pittsburgh, December 10, 2003: A cold rain blows sideways through the night into the face of Chris Urmson as he frets over Sandstorm, the robotic vehicle idling next to him on an overgrown lot between two empty steel mills. Urmson checks a tarp protecting the metal cage full of computers and custom electronics that serves as the sensate head of the chimeric robot, which has the body of an old Marine Corps Humvee. His ungloved hands shivering and his body aching from three sleep-deprived days and nights of work in the field, Urmson stares glumly at the machine and weighs his options. None of them are good.
He and his teammates had vowed months ago that by midnight tonight Sandstorm would complete a 150-mile journey on its own. It seemed a reasonable goal at the time: after all, 150 miles on relatively smooth, level ground would be but a baby step toward the 200-mile, high-speed desert crossing that the robot must be ready for on March 13, 2004, if it is to win the U.S. Department of Defense's Grand Challenge race, as well as the $1-million prize and the prestige that accompanies an extraordinary leap in mobile robotics.