Pentagon offers Vegas jackpot in robot race

America loves a motor race, whether it's the Indy 500, NASCAR or demolition derbies. So now the government is getting in the act with taxpayers putting up a $1 million prize to a winner of a grueling, offbeat motor marathon.

From the folks who dreamed up the scheme of a futures market to bet on possible assassinations or other terrorist acts-just cancelled under senatorial criticism-here comes the "DARPA Grand Challenge."

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon's research arm for futuristic projects, is taking applications through Oct. 14 for competitors entering newfangled vehicles to race about 270 miles from Los Angeles to Las Vegas.

The catch is the vehicles cannot have drivers, animals, or be operated remotely in the long dash into the Mojave Desert, which is scheduled to begin at sunrise March 13 in the Los Angeles area. The robot vehicles will have to be on their own, although aided by sensors, special global positioning devices or other navigation systems to make the trek.

As of Wednesday, three dozen teams have signed up to race with such robotic vehicle names as "CyberRider," "FutureNowa," "Totally Lost," "Team ZingerBot" and "Team Arctic Tortoise."

With no entry fee, the race and its $1 million jackpot at the Las Vegas finish line already has attracted backyard motor freaks to college students from Virginia Tech to Cal Tech.

The $1 million, DARPA said, is available under congressional authorization that runs until October 2007; the bragging rights are limitless.

So far, little criticism has been voiced, except by some engineers and designers who said it will be a huge feat if any vehicle can overcome the tough obstacles to complete the course. Capitol Hill's residual anger at DARPA for the terrorism futures scheme has not transferred to the unmanned vehicle race.

So far, congressional observers are watching and waiting as DARPA undertakes the race.

"They're having fun over there, aren't they?" quipped an aide to Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., who helped expose and stop DARPA's futures market for terror attacks.

The goal of the Pentagon is to find new unmanned military vehicles for combat, but there is no promise of a defense contract for the winner. While some military land robots exist now, the government is looking for advanced types that can navigate the tortuous course envisioned in this racewhich will include everything from gullies to boulders.

No mindless tanks need apply. "For example, an extremely large vehicle that simply travels on a straight line between two points by climbing over or breaking through everything in its path (and destroying what cannot support that movement) is not the type of intelligent solution that is sought," DARPA said in its rules, putting a sci-fi humanistic spin on requirements: "Vehicles that cannot demonstrate intelligent autonomous behavior will not be accepted as participants."

It will not be an easy Sunday drive in the park. The route, according to the rules, "will include surfaced and unsurfaced roads, trails and off-road areas. Man-made and natural obstacles-both above and below the surface of the average terrain-are likely. Examples of obstacles include ditches, open water, rocks, underpasses, construction and other vehicles. All obstructions on the route can be either accommodated or avoided by a commercial 4x4 pick-up truck."

And, if that is not difficult enough, racers will have to compete the treacherous course in 10 hours or less to qualify for the prize.

Although he considers it a brilliant idea, Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, questions whether there will be a big payoff because of the rigorous test. "There's a good chance someone will finish-and an equally good chance no one will finish. That's because it's such a unique, daunting challenge," Davidson said. "This is extremely hard. If this were on a hard road, it would be very doable."

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