The Center for Land Use Interpretation Newsletter

Report from the CLUI Mojave Desert Outpost


705The CLUI's Desert Research Station near Barstow. CLUI photo

THE SKY ABOVE THE CENTER'S Desert Research Station is blossoming with sonic booms and exotic military birds of prey, such as V-22 Ospreys and F-16 Falcons. Events out here in the high desert continue to challenge our imaginations and compromise our preconceptions. Down the road, the Army is in full swing on a simulated middle eastern battlescape at Fort Irwin. To the west, at Mojave Airport, Burt Rutan’s Scaled Composites just sent a private aircraft into space for the first time, a rocket powered winged egg that went 100 kilometers up, apogeed, and glided back down to a safe landing back on the runway. The right stuff redux. But one recent event out here stands out as being particularly spectacular, in all senses of the word.

In the old days, before the desert tortoise was elected as ruler of the land, dirt bikes could race from Barstow to Vegas, and did so quite often (just ask Hunter S. Thompsonhe might remember). In a futuristic flashback worthy of the fearsome and loathsome gonzoist himself, a race of robots, guided by machines in space (GPS satellites), took off across the desert last March, from Barstow (more or less) to Las Vegas (more or less). This was the notorious media feeding frenzy called the Grand Challenge, conceived and funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), and executed, primarily, by the subcontractor hired to run the event, Southern California Off Road Enthusiasts (SCORE) International, an off-road racing events organizer and promoting company.

This historic, histrionic event, officially subtitled the Autonomous Robotic Ground Vehicle Field Test, started with the full and unchallenged takeover of the off-road oasis known as the Slash X Ranch, a dirtbiker bar on highway 247 between Lucerne and Barstow, at the crossroads of the paved and unpaved Mojave. The grounds around the Slash X were turned into high-tech pit areas and parking lots, with event tents, rows of portapotties, a press pit, and grandstands. On event day, as the sun rose over the 6am kickoff ceremony, helicopters with gyrocams buzzed overhead, and cammo-clad military personnel mingled with the government and corporate administrators in customized Grand Challenge golf jackets. The public crammed the roadside grandstands, and the press, from all over the world, and all forced to wear plastic don’t hit me day-glow vests, pointed their lenses towards the starting line, and they were off.

706The Defense Department's Advanced Research Project Agency takes over the Slash X Ranch, the ultimate off-road biker bar south of Barstow, to stage a computer-controlled robot race across the desert to the Nevada State Line. No, this is not a B-movie film plot - it's a sign of the times. CLUI photo

One at a time, one every five or ten minutes, or however long it took to clear the track of the stalled, stuck, or broken ‘bot that preceded. In a few hours, all of the 15 entrants that qualified for the race had given it their best shot, and failed. Some went for several miles through the 142 mile long winding course, such as the Red Team from Carnegie Mellon, which had a half million dollars of gear in a converted Humvee, and contractors like SAIC backing them up. Their vehicle, Sandstorm, went for 7.4 miles before a wheel caught fire after steering off course. Others leapt out of the starting area and headed straight for the k-rail in front of the press pit, or hesitated terminally in front of a bush. One flipped over on the first turn, and one - the only two-wheeled entrant - simply fell over without leaving the starting gate.

Of course, building and fielding, without any military funding, a totally autonomous vehicleno remote controlthat can drive an unknown course of rough and varied terrain, is a difficult, indeed a grand, challenge. It's amazing that some made it as far as they did.

But there was a finish line all set up with grandstands and press pits, ready to go, though not in Las Vegas, but instead in the parking lot of Buffalo Bills Casino in Primm Nevada, just a few feet over the state line. So most of the vehicles were trucked out there on trailers and flatbeds, and set up in a roped off corner of the lot, on display to whomever wanted to look and whatever was left of the press. Meanwhile, as the sun gave out to the flashing casino signs, a curiously innocuous trailer was seen, by just a few, being towed around the streets of Primm, leaving a digital-looking text on the pavement behind it, with six-foot white lettering, spelling out a simple, repeated phrase that seemed to evoke the science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s law of robotics: “Robots must not kill.”

707Media frenzy waiting for the bots to launch from the chutes in the dawn light at the Slash-X Ranch. CLUI photo by Steve Rowell

Other Goings ons at the Desert Research Station
The Moisture group continues its experimentations and monitorings out at the DRS's northwest site, where a solar powered data collectors transmit information about the experiments via the cell network. Information such as the moisture content of the ground can thus be tracked remotely, and plotted on graphs that show variations in water content over time.

Another unrelated self contained system was installed at a remote location northwest of the DRS by Martin Howse and Jonathan Kemp, researchers from England. This system involves a network of solar powered sensor/transmitter pods that communicate with one another. Variations in external influences on each pod, including electromagnetic, sonic, physical vibrations, and temperature change, effect a signal which is transmitted at a frequency shared by each pod. This signal in turn effects the state of each pod, which responds with a variation, which in turn effects the signal, and so on. This compounded dynamic language system unites the individual units into a community that is responsive to its environment and to one another, but is unintelligible outside of this system.

A new building was delivered to the DRS a month ago, a structure that will become a multipurpose screening room and lecture hall. The unique, premanufactured structure, which was disassembled for shipment from the Whitney Museum in New York, was made by the Simparch group, which has designed and built other functional spaces for the Center. This building, called a Tubo Completo, uses premanufactured corrugated steel sheets to form a tube 20 feet in diameter and thirty feet long. The tube rests on four cradle like stands, and has floor, lighting, sound and projection system built into it.

The Austrian composer Georg Nussbaumer visited the DRS in May in order to work on a sound and video research piece about the desert. The project involved the use of a cello as a resonator that amplified and formed sound from the vibrations caused by inserting the metal stand at the base of the cello into different soil types around the DRS. In the process, the sensitive and highly tuned classical instrument became a tool for creating sound formed by an interaction with the landscape of the desert. The piece was presented as video, with additional accompaniment performed by members and guests of symphoid (an ensemble for music and its derivatives) in a public presentation of his work in June at the Villa Aurora in Los Angeles.