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Feds ready to send robotic car army to the streets

Grand Challenge goes urban

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We may all soon long for the days when a driver distracted by a cell phone or even a few pints was the most dangerous thing on the road. That's because the US government plans to let an army of unmanned vehicles loose in a city next year.

Last year's successful run of the $2m Grand Challenge robotic race has DARPA wanting more. The US research agency has offered up another $2m prize for the first robotic vehicle that can traverse a 60-mile urban course in less than six hours. The city test will take place in November 2007 and marks the third time DARPA has held such a race.

Many of you will recall that the first Grand Challenge took place in the desert between Los Angeles and Las Vegas and proved a miserable failure with no vehicle traveling more than a few miles. Just 18 months later, a handful of vehicles were able to complete the desert course with Stanford's "Stanley" finishing first and claiming the $2m prize.

Where those vehicles had to avoid ditches, barbed wire and boulders, the next set of machines will need to merge with traffic, handle roundabouts and even obey traffic laws. DARPA will set up a mock urban course for the event.

“Grand Challenge 2005 proved that autonomous ground vehicles can travel significant distances and reach their destination, just as you or I would drive from one city to the next,” DARPA Director Dr Tony Tether said. “After the success of this event, we believe the robotics community is ready to tackle vehicle operation inside city limits.”

DARPA has also tweaked the registration setup for the third running of the Grand Challenge. Teams can apply for up to $1m in development funds from DARPA in exchange for the government receiving a "limited license" to any technology on the vehicles.

For the first time, DARPA is also putting up second and third place awards of $500,000 and $250,000.

This focus on robotic technology stems from a government mandate. Congress has called for the Army to have one-third of its vehicles operate unmanned by 2015.

While DARPA expects these vehicles to one day accomplish military missions, we're hoping the technology can extend to the consumer space as soon as possible. It'll be a fine day when you can get sauced at the pub and have your robot drive home. ®

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