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High schoolers take on CalTechies in robot race

Nineteen teams, including one from a California high school, have qualified to enter a robotic-car race with a purse of $1 million, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency says.

Nineteen teams, including one from a California high school, have qualified to enter a robotic-car race with a purse of $1 million, and six more may be allowed to join, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency said this week.

In the DARPA Grand Challenge, set for next year, the agency--which funds research projects for the military--will hand the winnings to the team of inventors that comes up with a robotic car that can navigate an off-road course from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in the shortest amount of time. Except to send commands for an emergency stop and restart, humans can't interfere--the cars must drive themselves. The winning vehicle must complete the course in less than 10 hours.

The agency originally only expected to receive about 30 applications. However, the concept proved to be popular with inventors and the public. A total of 106 teams submitted applications to join, and 86 turned in technical papers detailing the technology behind their vehicles.

After reviewing many applications, DARPA ruled that 19 were "completely acceptable" and invited those applicants to enter the contest. The experience of the teams ranges widely. Although obvious heavy hitters such as the California Institute of Technology and Carnegie Mellon University qualified their teams, the Palos Verdes High School Road Warriors of Palos Verdes Estates, Calif., also snagged a spot.

Team LoGHIQ of Walden, N.Y., meanwhile, is the brainchild of two brothers and is getting funding from Taiwan's Via Technologies. Other teams DARPA invited include the Arctic Tortoise team of the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and Irvine, Calif.-based Team CyberRider, which consists of a group of people who met through the Internet.

Twenty-six other teams were rated as "possibly acceptable," and officials from the agency will conduct site visits with some of these teams to find the final six entrants.

"The major differences between the two groups were the state of their hardware development and technology integration, and the completeness of the technical approach," the agency said.

The contest is the first in a series of competitions DARPA will hold in an effort to cull ideas and concepts from a wide variety of sources. As a condition of admission, entrants have to give DARPA a license to use their designs.

The 250-mile course--which won't be completely revealed until two hours before the start--will require the computerized vehicles to drive through or around sand, mud, boulders, ditches, barbed wire, mountains and at least one overpass where onboard GPS (Global Positioning System) navigation setups won't work.