DARPA's latest challenge: Locate these 10 balloons

Government agency, in contest designed to gauge participants' social-networking savvy, plans to award $40,000 to the first person who pinpoints red weather balloons placed across States.

A new DARPA contest is using balloons to test our social-networking skills.

After kicking off the Internet 40 years ago, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is again tapping into the Net for a new challenge. The DARPA Network Challenge will award $40,000 to the first person who can identify the latitudes and longitudes of 10 red weather balloons positioned at different parts of the sky across the continental United States.

The 8-foot balloons are scheduled to lift off on Saturday at 7 a.m. PST and remain in their locations throughout the day, until sunset. The contest will be open until December 14, so contestants will have a little more than a week to gather up and submit their answers.

But the contest has a twist. Since no one person can identify all 10 balloons across the States in one day, challengers will need to rely on social networks to team up with others to pinpoint the locations of the balloons. DARPA's goal here is not to see if people can answer the question but to gauge how we use social networks to resolve a problem.

DARPA plans to launch 10 red weather balloons, somewhat larger than the one shown here, around the continental United States, and competitors are invited to try to identify the precise latitudes and longitudes of all 10 balloons to win a $40,000 prize.
DARPA plans to launch 10 red weather balloons, somewhat larger than the one shown here, around the continental United States, and competitors are invited to try to identify the precise latitudes and longitudes of all 10 balloons to win a $40,000 prize. U.S. Air Force photo/Chief Master Sgt. Gary Emery

"We are not interested in the balloons. We already know where those are," Norman Whitaker, DARPA's deputy director of transformational convergence technology, said in a statement. "It's the techniques people use to solve the challenge we're focused on. We have people who are going to be actively watching from the sidelines to see how this plays out."

Whitaker is hoping the contest will offer insight into how the Internet and social networks can help people build teams and collaborate with each other to solve real problems and challenges.

DARPA is leaving it up to the contestants to best figure out how to work with others to track the balloons. One example posed by Whitaker is that of using a Web site to offer a portion of the prize to anyone who shares info about the locations of the balloons. Another idea is to work with a charity and donate your winnings. People can also naturally ask for help through Web-based tools such as Facebook or Twitter, connecting via computers or smartphones.

Although the challenge may be tough, Whitaker believes that at least one person will be able to solve it, whether it takes five minutes or all day. But if no one responds with the locations of all 10 balloons by the December 14 deadline, the agency will reward the $40,000 to the first person who tracked down at least five of them.

DARPA isn't sure yet what it will do with the information it finds. But that's never stopped the agency before. "We're DARPA," Whitaker said. "We like to do things that are really out of the box."

The agency enjoys a history of out-of-the-box challenges. Past contests have set up races between unmanned, robotic vehicles, including DARPA's 2005 Grand Challenge and its 2007 Urban Grand Challenge.

Are you willing to take the DARPA challenge? How would you use the Internet and social networks to win the prize?

About the author

Journalist, software trainer, and Web developer Lance Whitney writes columns and reviews for CNET, Computer Shopper, Microsoft TechNet, and other technology sites. His first book, "Windows 8 Five Minutes at a Time," was published by Wiley & Sons in November 2012.

 

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