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20 teams to enter $2 million robot race in Mojave

10/5/2005

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.