for National Geographic News
When 15 competitors lined up in Nevada last year for the U.S. Defense Department's first million-dollar robot race, hopes were high. The challenge: to drive a vehicle without a human driver or remote control some 150 miles (241 kilometers) through the Mojave Desert.
But those hopes quickly went up in a cloud of dust as most robots barely managed to get off the starting line. The best performer, a modified Humvee built by engineers at Pennsylvania's Carnegie Mellon University, traveled 7 miles (11 kilometers) before breaking down.
To robot devotees, however, it was a minor hiccup.
No surprise, then, that 43 teams showed up to try out for this year's race, dubbed the Grand Challenge. For the past week, teams ranging from garage enthusiasts to well-funded university engineers have been fine-tuning their machines at qualifying rounds here at the California Speedway in Fontana, California. (Watch the robots in action in our exclusive video.)
Twenty-three finalists were announced Thursday for Saturday's Grand Challenge. The 175-mile (282-kilometer) course starts and finishes in Primm, Nevada.
The race promises to be even tougher than last year's run. But 18 months is an eternity in the robotics world, and the technology has vastly improved.
Organizers believe several teams have a real shot of finishing the race in less than ten hours to earn the grand prize of two million U.S. dollars.
"When the first team out of the chuteMojavaton, a small team out of Coloradomade it successfully around the 2.2-mile [3.5-kilometer] qualification course, I knew right there and then that we had something special," said Ron Kurjanowicz, the chief of staff for the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which is sponsoring the race.
The aim of the Grand Challenge, Defense Department officials say, is to spur development of autonomous ground vehicles that can operate in dangerous environments, such as war zones, keeping soldiers out of harm's way.
A U.S. Congress mandate requires that one-third of military ground vehicles drive themselves by 2015, but the technology to meet that mandate does not yet exist.
So the government looked to enterprising teams to develop the technology for driverless vehicles, sweetening its offer with the two-million-dollar purse.
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