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Grateful for army robot contest, entrants give tanks

The number of entries to a robotic-car contest sponsored by a Defense Department group more than doubles, prompting the agency to extend some deadlines.

More than 100 teams have applied to enter a robotic-car contest sponsored by the research wing of the Defense Department, prompting the agency to extend some deadlines.

The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency said Thursday that 106 teams have applied to participate in the Grand Challenge, an off-road race for unmanned vehicles slated to take place in March 2004, and that 86 teams have submitted technical papers describing their proposed robots.

Researchers and designers have to review submissions to determine if proposed vehicles are technically feasible and conform to contest rules. In May, only 34 teams had signaled their interest in participating, and DARPA had hoped to finalize the roster of participants toward the end of October. Some teams were expected to drop out by the time the actual application was due.

The unexpected number of applicants has prompted the agency to recalibrate some deadlines. Colonel Jose Negron of the agency will hold a press conference Nov. 6 to describe the selection process more fully.

The competition grew out of a Defense Department mandate to increase the use of technology in the field. The agency wants one third of all combat vehicles to be able to operate unmanned by 2015, said Don Shipley, a spokesman for the DARPA Grand Challenge, earlier this year.

Robots, which for many people conjure up images of Dr. Smith's droll sidekick from "Lost in Space," are becoming a major focus for research labs and product managers. An MIT grad student, James McLurkin, won the Lemelson-MIT Student Prize for his work on swarming robots that can tackle coordinated tasks, similar to how bees work. Intel and a group of start-ups are also looking at hammering out standards for robot construction.

Autonomous flying vehicles are already being used by the U.S. military. The drones used in the Gulf War and in combat in Yemen are examples.

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DARPA will award $1 million to the team of inventors that comes up with a robotic car that can drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas on an off-road course in 10 hours. DARPA, ideally, will then be able to cull ideas tried in the race for its own purposes.

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. Except to send commands for an emergency stop and restart, humans can't interfere--the cars must drive themselves.

Contestants span the gamut in terms of experience and resources. One of the acknowledged favorites is Red Team Robot Racing out of Carnegie Mellon University. William "Red" Whittaker, the Fredkin Professor of Robotics there, is overseeing the project. Whittaker devised robots that helped clean up the accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island power plant. The team's budget is said to exceed $1 million.

Another team, from the California Institute of Technology, has several students and a full-time project manager working on its vehicle. Corporate sponsors include IBM and Northrop Grumman. While CMU is building a vehicle from an old Humvee, Cal Tech is rigging up a 1996 Chevy Tahoe with computers and navigation equipment.

The technical submissions from CMU and Cal Tech were submitted earlier and have been approved, according to the teams.

At the other end of the spectrum is Team Loghiq, which is largely made up of two brothers with some corporate sponsorship from Taiwan's Via Technologies. Some teams are being fielded by university alumni groups and by aficionados who have met on the Internet. University groups in Alaska and Louisiana, and a group of high schoolers from Palos Verdes, Calif., are also participating.

"What drew me to the contest?" Ivar Schoenmeyr, captain of the CyberRider team, asked earlier this year. "The prospect to expand my horizons and do something that had never been done before. Mount Everest has been climbed, the North Pole discovered..."