Interview with Bill Kehaly, Axion Racing

DARPA's Grand Challenge, the robotic vehicle race held last fall, was a unique competition that provided a $2 million dollar prize to the team to complete a 132 mile course, with a fully autonomous robotic vehicle, in the least amount of time. Westlake Village-based Axion Racing ( was ranked seventh in the challenge, beating Caltech, UCLA, Princeton, Cornell, Mitre, and Ford, in the competition. Axion made it 67 miles into the challenge before suffering a mechanical failure. The group is hoping to participate in DARPA's followup, the DARPA Urban Challenge, which will put autonomous vehicles in a 60-mile, urban course, and also recently demonstrated its vehicle, Spirit, at the Pike's Peak Hill Climb. I talked with Bill Kehaly, of Axion Racing, about DARPA's upcoming Urban Grand Challenge, the recent demonstration Pike's Peak climb, and the upcoming Pike's Peak Robot Hill Climb ( this fall.

Ben Kuo: Tell me a little bit about your team and it's background, and why you decided to enter the Grand Challenge?

Bill Kehaly: I am part owner of Milo Water, a water company in Micronesia, and we were getting ready to produce our bottles in late 2002. At that time, we thought we'd have product by 2003. There are something like 1500 water companies in the U.S., and we were trying to figure out how to get press and differentiate ourselves. I was reading about the Grand Challenge in the local newspaper, and read the three paragraph report on the DARPA Grand Challenge, and into my head popped--I've got a Jeep, what would it look like if it were a water bottle driving itself through the desert? There was a three day initial meeting for the Challenge, I waited until the third day, with an hour left, hoping that I'd find a team there that was sitting at the altar and hadn't been picked up. Sure enough, I did--and that that's our team in San Diego. Their background was in Robowars, where the robots try to take each other apart by banging together. A bunch of them are out of UCSD, and they had the artificial intelligence and software, but no funding. So we developed a limited liability company to participate in the Grand Challenge. We're now three and a half years as an organization, and have taken part in both Grand Challenges--trying to keep up with big money teams. Dollar for dollar we're the cheapest answer out there, and have had lots of success qualifying.

Ben Kuo: How did you fund entering the race? I understand that DARPA is going to grant some money for teams to enter the next challenge?

Bill Kehaly: It's all been bankrolled by myself so far. DARPA is going to fund ten teams, each team will get a grant of a million bucks to help develop their vehicle. We've turned in a 470 page proposal and five minute video to DARPA, which describes where we're at and where we plan on going. Like probably another twenty teams, we're hoping to get the Track A grant money. If we don't get that the Pike's Peak Robot Race might be our last autonomous road race. It's a pretty big hole I've dug here funding this thing here--we've spent $998,000 dollars on our proposal. Compare that to a million dollar grant for Stanford--that's nothing for them--they've got a million dollar truck, and sponsorships from Red Bull and Volkswagen money.

Ben Kuo: Do you have any sponsors?

Bill Kehaly: It's hard, unbelievably hard, to get sponsors. It's nearly impossible. There are so many teams, so we've taken a choice to hold off for a big sponsor--which has not come yet--but if we get one of the ten grants, we think that sponsorships will be a lot easier.

Ben Kuo: Describe your vehicle and the kinds of technology you're using?

Bill Kehaly: It's a 94 Jeep Grand Cherokee, with now 191,000 miles on it. It initially was my car that I used as a commute car. The Jeep is a standard jeep with a rack on the top, and the back area where you would put your cargo is where we have five Xeon dual processors, marine batteries, and GPS systems, all tied into a specific spot in the Jeep. That's the brain which handles whether we should gas or brake, or turn the steering wheel one way or another. The brain makes a decision and sends the command to a National Instruments controller, to eight different boxes, which push electronic motion controllers. If we are in process and observe an obstacle with one of our many sensors, we drive around it.

Ben Kuo: Tell me a bit about the Pike's Peak Robotic Hill Climb--what's the prize for that competition?

Bill Kehaly: The thing that they are offering the winning team is entry into the Guiness Book of World Records. For me, it's the easiest way to get in that I've found, and I won't have to eat any worms or snails.

Ben Kuo: How do your prospects look for the Urban challenge right now?

Bill Kehaly: With the limited communications we've had, we're either very in or very out. We were ranked the sixth team and the third team in the races, and you'd think we'd be one of the ten, but the issue is that you've got groups like iRobot coming in, SAIC, and there's a lot of organizations that weren't involved that have really good pedigrees that are involved now. I'm saying we're number nine to eleven, right on the bubble.

Ben Kuo: Thanks, and good luck!


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