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NetApp drives zombie truck in desert race

“Boss”. Photo courtesy of

Nope, nobody slipped anything into my morning coffee–this did actually happen. NetApp was a member of the Tartan Racing Team, a group comprised of engineers from Carnegie-Mellon university and corporate sponsors / partners, including GM, Caterpillar and Continental. Tartan was facing off against other teams, each spearheaded by a university robotics group such as MIT or Cornell and joined by technology and automotive vendors, in a contest to create vehicles that give new meaning to the word “automatic.”

The contest is run by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), the same government entity (along with Al Gore) credited with creating the Internet. DARPA set up a twofold challenge for each research team in a robotics competition to create a vehicle that could drive itself, unmanned, through any terrain, and created a twofold contest–one race in the desert and one in an urban environment–to test the entries.

NetApp has sold some of its small filers into military accounts for use on transport vehicles in combat zones, but this time didn’t contribute technology to the car itself–more like the car workshop, where NetApp storage was used to log and analyze data as the vehicle was developed.

Tartan and its creation, a Chevy Tahoe dubbed “Boss,” were the winners in the desert portion of the race, 170 miles which only three of 11 teams finished. Tartan also won the 60-mile urban course, in which 6 teams finished. The Discovery Channel will be covering the DARPA contest and all its entrants in a multi-part miniseries set to air in the spring, NetApp officials said; the network even brought in the stars of Mythbusters to act as TV analysts for the event.

The whole event was put on in fun, of course, but imagine the creepy possibilities of this technology: unstoppable, unmanned tanks storming cities; unmanned SUVs hunting in streets for the enemy. How would you even defend against something like that? It boggles the mind.

“Well,” pointed out Chris Urmson, director of technology for the Urban Challenge at the Robotics Institute at Carnegie Mellon, somewhat uncomfortably cutting off my Calvin-like woolgathering. “It’s not just a weapon.” Urmson pointed out that one of the primary use cases envisioned by the military for unmanned vehicles is the creation of a kind of trackless train comprised of driverless SUVs following one manned vehicle in the front, cutting down on the casualties associated with supply convoys in combat zones. The driverless cars also have possible commercial applications (Minority Report, anyone?) as well as a possible place in agriculture.

I just sometimes have a little too vivid an imagination.

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