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DARPA picks 40 robot hopefuls for $2m race

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A wiser and more methodical DARPA has released a final list of competitors that will vie for a spot in the second running of the $2m Grand Challenge.

Out of 118 applicants, DARPA has picked 40 teams to battle in a qualification event that will determine which teams actually race come October. The $2m prize and unique nature of the Grand Challenge, which requires robot cars to steer themselves across a 150 mile, obstacle laden desert course, has clearly generated plenty of interest. With any luck, this year's event will end with more impressive results than the 2003 contest that saw no vehicle go more than a few miles.

"It is truly remarkable how much progress the Grand Challenge teams have made in a relatively short period of time,” said program manager Ron Kurjanowicz. “The (qualification event) will be very exciting and we will see autonomous vehicle performance that was not possible a year ago. The teams’ creative sparks are flying and they are making impressive progress toward DARPA’s goal of developing technologies that will save the lives of our men and women in uniform on the battlefield.”

In 2003, DARPA struggled to deal with a flood of applicants looking to cash in on a then $1m prize. It pushed through a number of last minute rule changes and stumbled through an awkward qualification process only to watch as robot cars and even one motorcycle ran into walls and stuck to barbed wire and boulders.

This time around, DARPA has doubled the prize and set very specific deadlines for teams. The 40 teams picked have already submitted technical information on their proposed vehicles and passed on-site inspections. In September, they'll compete in a more rigorous series of tests before receiving the go ahead to race from California through Nevada within 10 hours.

Many of the teams picked for this year's race also competed in 2003. The best known teams of this lot include the Red Team from Carnegie Mellon University and CalTech's group. The complete list has a number of university squads, a high school team and many private companies. A Canadian team will also be having a go at the Grand Challenge for the first time.

Here's hoping the robot grunts have learned as much as DARPA. ®

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