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Robot race hits the tracks

Forty-three robotic vehicles take on the semifinals of the DARPA Grand Challenge. Only 20 will be invited to the finals.

As if fulfilling a child's fantasy, 43 robotic vehicles began racing around the California Speedway this week in a government-sponsored test of artificially intelligent machines.

The winner--assuming that there is one this year--will take home $2 million.

Robot vehicles in action The race is the second annual DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Grand Challenge, a U.S. military-sponsored desert race that tests the endurance of robots. It's a challenge that taps the creativity, brainpower and funds of U.S. universities and private-sector visionaries as the military tries to push the envelope of artificial-intelligence technology.

The eight-day semifinals kicked off Wednesday in Fontana, Calif., with mixed results. Teams including those from Stanford University, Cornell University, Carnegie Mellon University and one called "Mohavaton" finished the course on the first day. But other teams flailed, according to discussion groups and bloggers at the event.

"One (of the five teams that started) took a sharp right into a wall just out of the gate, one took out the first shiny metal gate and stopped, one ran about 3/4 of the race and got stuck out of my sight somewhere," according to a posting from "Navigator" in a discussion board of the event.

No one was able to claim the $1 million prize offered last year. Carnegie Mellon University's robot Hummer, Sandstorm, went the farthest and fastest. But that's not saying much: It traveled 7.3 miles in a 144-mile race before burning out.

This year's finals, scheduled for Oct. 8 in Primm Valley, Nev., and involving a 175-mile course, will invite only 20 of the 43 semifinalists, and the entrants sound like a major upgrade from last year. This summer, Sandstorm drove 200 miles over seven hours autonomously on a racecourse--a milestone for Carnegie Mellon.

The semifinals, which feature rugged courses set up at the California Speedway, will test the vehicles' ability to navigate gates, tunnels, narrow roads and mountain switchbacks.

According to Navigator: "I am amazed at these guys doing so well on the first day. Not only are we going to have a winner on the GC, but I predict many vehicles will finish."