The "Grand Challenge," currently planned for sometime in 2004, will require self-contained robots to deal with roads and rugged terrain. The core concept of the race takes human operators completely out of the loop, said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker.
"If they need to refuel, they'll have to do it autonomously," Walker told United Press International. "That sort of ability would be very useful on the battlefield."
The details and exact timeframe for the race are still under discussion, Walker said, with updates expected at the darpa.mil/grandchallenge Web site starting Aug. 5.
Anthony Tether, the agency's director, announced the race as he handed out the agency's Awards for Excellence during the DARPATECH 2002 conference.
"By having this race and awarding a prize of this size, we will bring out the people from the garages around the country and stimulate interest in this important field," Tether said at the Thursday evening ceremony. "If we can do this, the whole field of autonomous vehicles will take off once people know it can be done."
The agency has set a very high hurdle for designers to clear, according to presentations earlier this week from other DARPA officials. Douglas Gage, a program manager with the Information Processing Technology Office, said existing efforts are not expected to create a robot driver for another four or even eight years. One of the primary issues is discovering a way to permit semi-autonomous robots to "learn" from decisions human drivers make after taking control of the machine, he said.
DARPA's awards also honored groundbreaking work in several research areas. The Sustained Excellence Award went to Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University in Durham, N.C., and John Chapin of the State University of New York Health Science Center in Brooklyn, for their neuroscience projects in capturing and translating brain impulses. The research so far has allowed the thoughts of a monkey to control the movements of a robotic arm, and allowed researchers to control a rat's movements remotely through a complex environment.
"We are going to see more and more of this work," Chapin said in accepting the award. "It's our brain contemplating how our own brain works, it's our brain thinking about perhaps how we could make an artificial brain that works the same way."
The Significant Technical Achievement Award went to an academic team headed by Issac Chuang, an associate professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. The researchers, from MIT, the IBM Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif., Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and the University of California at Davis created the to-date largest "quantum computer," which is not limited to using only ones and zeroes to carry out its instructions.
Although quantum computers hold the promise of solving immensely complex equations hundreds or thousands of times faster than current systems, the Chuang team's device succeeded at the simple task of 3 x 5 = 15. Tether said the achievement is the quantum computer equivalent of the earliest mechanical arithmetic devices.
GASL, a company in Ronkonkoma, N.Y., won the Outstanding Performance by a Small Business Contractor Award for its work in demonstrating free-flight test techniques for supersonic ramjet engines. Scramjets, as they are called, are highly fuel-efficient at velocities several times the speed of sound and are expected to be a vital part of future air travel and even spacecraft launches.
Cynthia Hanson, an employee of the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego won the Outstanding Performance by a Government Technical Agent for her support of numerous DARPA programs. Her ability to provide continuity and corporate know-how to the agency's research process has been invaluable, Tether said.