Electronic Design

Robots, Start Your Engines!

Twenty-five robots will meet in Barstow, Calif., on March 13 to compete for a million bucks in the DARPA Grand Challenge, a 250-mile-or-so on- and off-road race from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. There's only one catch, though. There will be no drivers or passengers on board, nor any technical crews on the sidelines to guide them by remote control.

These autonomous vehicles will have 10 hours to complete the course. The robot finishing in the fastest time wins. Robots will have to select their route, navigate to stay on it, perceive and work around obstacles in the terrain, and control their speed, all on their own. The course, which will include ditches, open water, rocks, and other competitors, will be released to the design teams just two hours before the race.

Participants include university and private sector teams alike, with some startups formed specifically for the event. DARPA hopes the cash prize will inspire technological innovations that will lead to the next generation of unmanned military vehicles. In fact, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2001 aims to convert a third of all of the armed forces' ground combat vehicles to unmanned vehicles by 2015. This first in a possible annual series of races could be a significant step toward that goal.

For more information, go to www.darpa.mil.

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