Money isn't everything to mastering the Grand Challenge

Technical Details

While other teams had rack-mounted servers and the latest computer gear, the bulk of Kat-5's navigation is handled by four low budget computers mounted in the back of the vehicle. Two Mac Minis handle the bulk of the terrain and GIS navigation and two Linux desktops running Fedora Core 2 take care of the rest of the computations. The team had wanted to use Fedora Core 4, but ran into driver compatibility issues.

Before switching the Mac Minis, The Gray Team tested an $8,000 IBM server, but were not happy with the results. "Most of our high math and GIS operations require square-root calculations, which were extremely fast on the Mac Mini," said Kinney. The team wrote the code in JAVA, which, according to The Gray Team, runs well on the Altivec engine of the Macs. In fact, they ran so well that their $800 Macs blew away a $8000 IBM server. In addition, power requirements were much lower with the Apple computers, as they only require 2.4 amps at 12 volts maximum. "That's with everything running, CD Burning.. you name it," said Kinney.

Early on in their testing, Kat-5 blew a $10 circuit breaker because of the pent up heat inside of the cabin. In another example of The Gray Team's low budget ingenuity, cheap silvery sunshades were placed inside of all the windows. It may not look pretty, but it got the job done and there were no more circuit breaker failures.

On the eve of the race, Kat-5's brake wire broke and the team scrambled to fix it. Kinney said, "It's pretty bad wire to break, since we are a drive-by-wire vehicle after all."

In addition to technical difficulties, the team faced personal hardship as well. Hurricane Katrina wiped out three-fourths of the team member's homes. The same hurricane also took out their webserver. Luckily, in the week before the hurricane, the team took Kat-5 to another part of Louisiana for an informal race against Team CajunBot. That move not only saved the robot, but the very lives of the team members.