A milestone in robotics history was left in the dust last October as four autonomous vehicles met a Grand Challenge set by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). By driving themselves without any human guidance over 132 miles of desert trails, through narrow tunnels and down a treacherous mountain pass--and doing so at a pace that suggested they could take on even tougher courses--the machines surprised some veteran roboticists, who had predicted the Challenge would stand unanswered for years to come.

On March 28, NOVA will broadcast an in-depth television documentary covering the 2005 Grand Challenge on PBS stations nationwide. The documentary features the commentary of Scientific American Senior Writer W. Wayt Gibbs, who covered the Grand Challenge for the magazine by embedding himself with the Red Team at Carnegie Mellon University, one of the leading competitors.

Attracting aspirants from high schools to corporate skunkworks, the Grand Challenge produced many stories of dogged persistence, wrenching turnabouts and visionary ingenuity. You can experience some of these stories, and learn more about the amazing technologies that enable off-road robotic navigation, through the video, photographs and articles below.

Video from the October 2005 Grand Challenge Competition



Photographs from the October 2005 Grand Challenge competition

Click here for image gallery

Articles on the Grand Challenge

Innovations from a Robot Rally
This year's Grand Challenge competition spurred advances in laser sensing, computer vision and autonomous navigation-not to mention a thrilling race for the $2-million prize

From Finish to Start
Was the Grand Challenge robot race in March the fiasco it appeared to be? Hardly, argues William "Red" Whittaker. The annual event is pushing mobile robotics to get real

Robots Come Up Short in the Grand Challenge

A New Race of Robots
Around the U.S., engineers are finishing one-year crash projects to create robots able to dash 200 miles through the Mojave Desert in a day, unaided by humans. Scientific American tailed the odds-on favorite team for 10 months and found that major innovations in robotics are not enough to win such a contest. Obsession is also required