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Defense Department sponsoring a $1M prize, 250-mile cross-country race — for robots | (KRT) With an eye to future desert warfare, the Defense Department is sponsoring a 250-mile cross-country race next March from Anaheim, Calif., to Las Vegas - to be run by robots.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is putting up a $1 million prize for the winner of this wacky-sounding competition. So far, 18 companies, universities, computer scientists and robotics specialists have signed up for what DARPA calls its "Grand Challenge" race.

The Pentagon's goal is to advance the technology of autonomous (self-guided) ground vehicles that can operate on a battlefield without human control. Congress authorized the prize money last year to stimulate further innovation in military robots, which have just begun to prove their worth in Afghanistan and Iraq.

"We are trying to inspire the innovators out there, the nontraditional people who don't normally deal with the Department of Defense," said Army Col. Jose Negron, Grand Challenge project manager.

At a meeting for prospective competitors, Negron compared the race to Charles Lindbergh's prizewinning solo flight across the Atlantic in 1927, which led to the rise of commercial aviation.

The Army already uses some unmanned ground vehicles, but they are guided by soldiers using remote control. An autonomous vehicle must find its way on its own, with no assistance from humans.

Race entrants "must be 100 percent autonomous," Negron said. Their only permitted instructions are "start" and "stop."

The robots will have to steer themselves along paved and unpaved roads, sandy and rocky trails and open desert. They must cross gullies, ford streams, avoid ditches and thread their way through a 10-foot wide underpass. They must do all this using only computerized maps and commercial Global Positioning System satellite receivers, which tell them their location within about 10 feet.

Competitors will get the maps only two hours before the race is set to begin at 6:30 a.m. March 13. The maps will provide a "waypoint" - the latitude and longitude of an intermediate point along the way - about every quarter-mile to help the robots figure out where to head next. Straying too far from the defined route means disqualification

There will be one pit stop about 180 miles into the race, but the machines will have to gas up themselves - no humans can help.

The vehicles will need vision systems so they can avoid tumbling into ditches, crashing into one another and hitting people, boulders or other obstacles.

"A large vehicle that simply travels on a straight line between two points by climbing over or breaking through everything in its path is not the type of intelligent solution that is sought," the Grand Challenge rulebook declares.

DARPA will provide an emergency stop system to halt any robot that is about to hit a hiker or cause other damage.

To win the prize, the vehicle must be the first to cross the finish line in 10 hours or less. That means it must maintain an average speed of 25 mph - sometimes much faster - an extremely tough standard for today's robots.

"We want to push the technology forward more quickly," said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker. "For military use, unmanned vehicles will have to cross rugged terrain quickly and easily without human assistance."

There are no restrictions on the size, weight or type of vehicle. Wheels, treads or legs are allowed for locomotion.

"Perhaps having six legs, like a cockroach, is the best way to go through rough terrain," DARPA Director Anthony Tether told the competitors' meeting.

If no robot finishes the course in 10 hours, DARPA plans to repeat the race every year until 2007, when congressional authorization for the prize money runs out. Contestants will pay to build their own vehicles.

The first entrant in the race, William "Red" Whittaker, a veteran robotics expert at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, said the challenge was "extremely difficult," but he's confident his "Red Team" can win.

Whittaker has spent 20 years designing and building mobile "field robots" to work on farms, in mines, nuclear plants and other places outside the typical factory or office environment. He is now developing an autonomous robotic explorer for a future mission to Mars.

"We want to change the view of what is possible and create new robotic applications," Whittaker said in an interview. "Our generation of technology is woefully insufficient for the future of robotics."

Other competing teams include machine shops, stock car racers, computer vision experts, video gamers, software developers and the like. Major auto companies and defense contractors also are expected to join the contest.

"Winning the 2004 challenge is possible," said another competitor, Martin Calsyn, the president of Scarab Robotics, a robot manufacturer in Carnation, Wash.

"The hardest part of the course is the 10 meters in front of the robot," he said. That short distance is where the robot might run into something or fall into a ditch. Given recent progress in computer vision and machine "intelligence," Calsyn said he believes "the technology exists to conquer that problem."

For more information on the competition, go to

For more about one participating robotics center, go to

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© 2003, Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services