March 12, 2004 4:18 PM PST

Robot cars rev engines for Army race

Fifteen teams will take to the starting line on Saturday for the Grand Challenge, the robotic-car contest the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense is sponsoring.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) whittled down a field of 25 competitors to 15 for the race during a week of qualification and testing in Fontana, Calif. The favorite in the contest--which involves creating a vehicle that can cover a 250-mile off-road course between Los Angeles and Las Vegas without human interference--remains Sandstorm, the modified Hummer from Carnegie Mellon University, which scored better on preliminary test results than any other team.

Other qualifiers include a team from the California Institute of Technology, a group from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and another from Palos Verdes High School. The high school team scored higher in preliminary qualifications than the University of California at Berkeley team, according to DARPA-released rankings.

The Grand Challenge is part of the U.S. military's effort to seed the development of robotic combat vehicles that can perform functions impossible, or too hazardous, for humans.

Mobile and flying robots are already being used in Afghanistan and Iraq, and some believe that a larger market for mobile robots will take off in the next five years.

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DARPA isn't expecting to take the winning robot into battle. Instead, it sees the race as a way to generate a range of prototypes and ideas. Under contest rules, a $1 million prize will go to the team that creates the winning autonomous vehicle, if it completes the course within 10 hours. The agency, however, gets free access to the intellectual property of the contestants.

Similar contests will follow, the agency has said.

The Grand Challenge has proved far more popular than DARPA anticipated. It originally expected that about 30 teams would want to take part, but 106 teams submitted applications to join, and 86 turned in technical papers detailing the technology behind their vehicles. DARPA began winnowing the field last year.


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