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Location: Hyderabad, India

10/08/2005

Robot cars rise to Pentagon's challenge

The desert pitstop with a handful of casinos was supposed to be the finish line for a robot race sponsored by the Pentagon last year to spur development of unmanned vehicles for warfare. Problem was, none of the self-driving entries made it this far. In three days of qualifying rounds this week, about a dozen teams managed to nimbly navigate a four-kilometre obstacle course inside southern California's Fontana Speedway circuit, to qualify for today's prize race. Several other teams that did well in qualifying will join the race to bring the number of contestants to 20. The course will only be announced two hours before the race, to make sure that all navigation is conducted by the vehicles' global positioning systems. But contestants are expected to have to travel some 250 kilometres across a desert route starting in Primm, Nevada, using only onboard sensors, navigation equipment and computers to find and follow the route and avoid obstacles. The robots also have to heed speed limits in certain zones and pass through a tunnel designed to temporarily knock out their GPS capabilities. There are several reasons why this year's field is more competitive. Teams had more time to prepare for the race. Many spent the past 18 months focused on the vehicles' computer ``brain,'' beefing up their artificial intelligence through improved computer algorithms. Teams also had the advantage of practising in various parts of the desert under race-like conditions. Even before the semifinals, some robots had already driven hundreds of continuous kilometres during practice, including some that tested on last year's course between Barstow and Primm. `Nobody was ready last year,'' said Bill Kehaly of Westlake Village-based Axion Racing, whose Jeep Grand Cherokee named Spirit is racing in the finals. ``Everybody feels a lot more confident this year.'' The favourites were even more impressive. Stanford University's entry, Stanley, is a Volkswagen Touareg sport utility vehicle outfitted with cameras, laser guidance systems, an inertial system that functions like an inner ear to keep the vehicle oriented, and six computers. Lets hope somebody wins this race and we can have unmanned cars in the future.

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