At the crack of dawn this Saturday, a 200-mile race across the Mojave Desert begins. The competitors are robotic vehicles taking on the form of SUVs, dune buggies and golf carts. It's the DARPA Grand Challenge, a contest designed by the Pentagon and its Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to spur advancements in the field of robotics. The race is open to all-comers, so the government is hoping the $1 million prize will encourage university teams and garage scientists alike to come up with designs that may some day save lives on the battlefield.
The race starts early in the morning when the teams are given the coordinates for the course. The teams then have two hours to work out and program the route for their vehicles. But once the start signal is given, humans have no further communication with their robotic companions as they speed across the terrain.
Red Whittaker, professor of robotics at Carnegie Mellon University, calls his team's entry, Sandstorm, a "beast of the desert." He talks with NPR's Melissa Block, host of All Things Considered about the challenges of the race and its practical applications. The military is looking for technology to create unmanned vehicles to use in war zones and keep troops out of danger. NASA has an interest, too. The technology could be used to improve its robotic planetary explorers, such as the two currently on Mars.