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WHAT DRIVES INVENTION? VEHICLE WON'T BE READY FOR RACE.

Byline: Jim Skeen Staff Writer

EDWARDS AIR FORCE BASE - For more than a year, Kent Tiffany worked on a robotic all-terrain vehicle in his garage, in hopes of competing for a $1 million prize in a Pentagon-sponsored race across the Mojave Desert.

Tiffany's vehicle won't be ready for next weekend's competition, but he will be showing it to defense officials and hopes to see it in action, perhaps in another $1 million race. Tiffany also has ideas on applying the vehicle's technology to homeland defense.

``It's a neat story; too bad it's not a Cinderella story,'' Tiffany said last week. ``It's a two-year development cycle we tried to do in 14 months. I'm proud to be where I'm at.''

Though unfinished, Tiffany's vehicle - a Honda ATV fitted with a control-and-guidance system, including a computer brain and a digital camera - will be showcased this week at the California Speedway in Fontana for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

The agency is the race sponsor and the same organization that spurred the development of the F-117A stealth fighter and the Global Hawk unmanned reconnaissance plane.

Tiffany's vehicle will be among 25 robotic vehicles DARPA will examine in a qualification review prior to Saturday's $1 million Grand Challenge race from Barstow, Calif., to Primm, Nev.

While others at the qualification session still have a shot at winning the DARPA prize money, the vehicle Tiffany spent many hours of his off- time developing won't be at the starting line. A partner responsible for the vehicle's vision system pulled out over liability concerns, and there wasn't enough time to develop and install a replacement.

The Grand Challenge race will feature robotic vehicles trying to travel, without any human guidance or intervention, between Barstow and Primm, mainly on dirt roads through the desert. The team with the first vehicle to complete the course under the 10-hour time limit will win $1 million.

DARPA is sponsoring the race to spur innovation in technologies for ground vehicles, and to reach out to businesses and people that don't normally do business with the Department of Defense.

Tiffany, an Air Force major, works on DARPA's joint unmanned combat air system, a program aimed at developing unmanned fighters for the Air Force and Navy. He learned about the Grand Challenge from a co-worker.

``I kind of looked at it; then threw it aside,'' Tiffany said. ``At 3 p.m. that day, I was like, boom, I know how to do this.''

Tiffany assembled a team, dubbed Team Spirit of Las Vegas, and rounded up sponsors, including Honda, which provided a Rincon all-terrain vehicle.

A windshield-wiper motor handles the steering, and an attitude-control sensor provides information on the vehicle's going.

``We get the same information that an airplane would have when it flies,'' Tiffany said. ``We know pitch, roll, yaw and heading.''

The project has meant long hours of work, in addition to his base job.

``It's been a real challenge for our family,'' wife Clara Tiffany said. ``I don't know how many times he didn't get to bed until 3 in the morning and had to get up at 6 to go to work. But he's been as happy as he can be.''

The project has piqued the interest of the Tiffanys' two children, 5-year-old Austin and 3-year-old Addison. After watching his dad work on the vehicle, Austin decided he needed to upgrade his toy John Deere tractor.

``One day, he said, 'Mom, I need a computer for it. I need one like Dad's,'' Clara Tiffany said.

While falling short for the DARPA competition has been disheartening, Tiffany is looking ahead. A similar race is being proposed for the fall, an event planned by the International Robot Racing Federation.

Tiffany said he planned to continue work on the vehicle and will possibly partner with one of the teams from the DARPA competition for the fall race.

Tiffany said he is also starting to formulate ideas for coupling an unmanned ground vehicle with unmanned aircraft for homeland security work.

``You can put it on a border; you can have an airborne UAV (unmanned air vehicle) communicate with this drone vehicle,'' Tiffany said. ``If the airborne vehicle detects something of interest, it can request a ground vehicle go investigate.''

Tiffany said he expected his won't be the only vehicle invited to DARPA's qualification inspection that won't be ready to compete. Tiffany said he would be surprised if more than 15 vehicles competed.

Still, DARPA should be commended for spurring interest in unmanned ground vehicle technology, he said.

``The ideas are out there,'' Tiffany said. ``The Grand Challenge has opened the doors.''

Jim Skeen, (661) 267-5743

james.skeen(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) USAF Maj. Kent Tiffany, top, installs a digital camera, above, on his computer-controlled vehicle, a project that wasn't completed in time for a $1 million DARPA race next weekend.

(3) Kent Tiffany displays the inner working of his vehicle's system. ``We get the same information that an airplane would have when it flies,'' he says.

Charles F. Bostwick/Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Mar 8, 2004
Words:845
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