20 teams to enter $2 million robot race in Mojave

Updated: October 5, 2005, 1:39 PM ET
Associated Press

FONTANA, Calif. -- At least 20 teams were expected to be named Wednesday to enter the $2 million government-sponsored robot race across the Mojave Desert after proving that their driverless vehicles could navigate a 2-mile obstacle course during a weeklong trial.

The finalists were to be chosen after an intense, weeklong qualifying at the California Speedway, where the self-navigating vehicles had to drive on a bumpy road, zip through a tunnel and avoid obstacles. No human drivers or remote controls were allowed.

Last year, only half of the 15 contestants that ran in the so-called Grand Challenge passed the semifinals. And then no team claimed the $1 million inaugural prize because all the contestants broke down within a few miles of the starting gate.

So this year, the sponsor, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), doubled the purse with the hope that a vehicle would finish.

This time, more than half the 43 semifinalists completed the hilly qualifying course littered with hay bales and parked cars at least once, including five vehicles that finished it four separate times.

The vehicles included a converted Humvee and Hummer by Carnegie Mellon University and a modified Volkswagen Touareg by Stanford University. Other teams used a six-wheel truck and a Jeep Grand Cherokee.

The race is part of the Pentagon's effort to fulfill a congressional mandate to have a third of all military ground vehicles unmanned by 2015. The Defense Department envisions using robotic vehicles to bring supplies in combat zones.

DARPA, the Pentagon's research and development arm, spent $9 million on this year's event. The agency would award $2 million to the first team whose vehicle can traverse a rough and winding desert course of at least 150 miles in less than 10 hours on Saturday.

Because the vehicles must be self-navigating, they are equipped with GPS tracking. Mounted sensors, radar, lasers and cameras feed information to onboard computers to orient the vehicles and help them avoid obstacles and traps.

The exact route that vehicles must follow is kept secret until two hours before the competition. Organizers said the course, which will loop from and to the casino town of Primm, Nev., will feature rugged desert and mountain terrain. Vehicles have to average 15 to 20 mph to finish in time.

During the qualifiers, vehicles had at least four runs and were graded on how well they could traverse a 2-mile track at varying speeds. They had to pass through a 100-foot-long tunnel designed to knock out their GPS signal and avoid obstacles including hay bales, trash cans and parked cars.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press