WASHINGTON — Think "Mad Max" meets Jules Verne. Or "BattleBots" hits "Cannonball Run."
Think winning $1 million for racing a robocar.
That will be the Pentagon's unlikely pitch to more than 200 potential participants Saturday in Los Angeles at the announcement of a public competition to build and race unmanned ground vehicles from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in March 2004.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 27, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 ..CF: Y 1 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Ground race -- An article in Section A on Friday about a Pentagon-sponsored race of autonomous ground vehicles from Los Angeles to Las Vegas misspelled the first name of Phileas Fogg, a character in Jules Verne's novel "Around the World in Eighty Days," as Phineas.
The rules are simple. "No humans or other biological entities" allowed onboard. No radio or remote controls. No attacking other vehicles. And please, no flamethrowers or other devices that "clear a path by setting everything in its way on fire." Pretty much anything else goes.
The race, called the Grand Challenge, is the brainchild of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or Darpa, the $2-billion whiz-bang shop at the Pentagon that helped create the Internet, Stealth aircraft, "smart" bombs and the pilotless Predator plane.
The goal this time is to meet a congressional mandate, set in 2000, that at least one in three future army battle systems be unmanned. Despite huge advances in civilian and military robotics in recent years, the necessary sensors, software and other technology for real robot-assisted warfare doesn't yet exist.
The Pentagon hopes garage tinkerers, junkyard warriors, off-road enthusiasts, robotics fanatics and anyone else will come to the rescue by building a fully autonomous ground vehicle -- any size, any shape -- that can traverse 300 or so miles of paved road, deserts and mountains in less than 10 hours. That would require an average speed of at least 30 mph.
"We look at this like [Charles] Lindbergh crossing the Atlantic," said Air Force Col. Jose Negron, who is running the Darpa race, referring to the $25,000 prize that spurred a shy mail pilot to make the first nonstop solo flight from New York to Paris in 1927.
"It's mind-boggling," Negron added. "This will be a spectacular event if someone builds an autonomous vehicle that can travel 300 yards, no less 300 miles. That will be inspiring. It's never been done."
The task is far tougher than building a ground version of the Predator, the missile-firing drone aircraft that earned public notice for missions over Afghanistan last year.
"There's nothing to bump into up there except another aircraft," said Negron, who was a B-52 navigator and thus should know. Plus, the unmanned Predator is electronically "tethered" to a technician somewhere on the ground who flies it by remote control.
The ground vehicle must be independent -- that is, all computing and other equipment must be self-contained and onboard. It can use satellite-based navigation systems, but no other external communication. The vehicle even must control its own refueling or recharging.
The precise course won't be revealed until race day, so each roadster must be able to "read" the ground as it advances. It then must recognize and negotiate over or around steep hills, rocky arroyos, desert sand, craters, buildings and whatever artificial obstacles Negron and his team can dream up.
"Suppose it comes across a pond or a stream?" Negron asked. "How deep is the water? As a human being, I can see tracks across the way and figure I can cross it. But can an autonomous vehicle see that? Or will it know to go around it? And can it go around?"
Los Angeles was chosen as the starting point because of its car culture, its defense industry and because Darpa will hold its annual tech conference in Anaheim just before the race, now scheduled for March 13, 2004. Las Vegas was chosen as the finish line because, well, it's Las Vegas.
Early discussions at Darpa have focused on everything from super-charged Humvees to huge air-powered balls.
Whatever the final configuration, the Pentagon needs unmanned vehicles to "reduce the number of soldiers placed in harm's way and increase combat effectiveness," according to a report issued last month by the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Engineering.
"Unmanned ground vehicles have the potential to revolutionize the capabilities of Army forces on the battlefield," the report adds. It cites their potential use as scouts and searchers, as "donkey" units to move supplies and equipment, and ultimately as "a fully autonomous combat vehicle."
To be sure, other groups have tested and raced robotic vehicles.
Carnegie Mellon University built a self-steering one that drove nearly all the way from Washington, D.C., to San Diego in 1995, using cameras to keep the vehicle on the highway and away from other cars.
However, researchers controlled the brake and the accelerator, which won't be allowed in next year's race.
Autonomous vehicles also have covered rugged terrain, though at low speeds. Carnegie Mellon's Nomad, built for NASA, was able to scour a moraine in Antarctica three years ago to discover meteorites.