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Once more, DARPA calls robots to a Grand Challenge

18 months ago DARPA called robotics scientists for a race in the desert, to see if any self-guided robots could master a challenging course. None could. In October, the second Grand Challenge gets started. And the prospects are markedly better.

It has been almost 18 months since the Pentagon's research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, first attracted a motley array of autonomous vehicles with a prize of $1 million for the first to complete a 142-mile desert course from Barstow, Calif., to Las Vegas. The most successful robot, developed by a Carnegie Mellon University team, managed all of seven miles.

That's John Markoff writing in the New York Times about the return of the great robot race in the desert. The next race takes place Oct. 8 and carries a $2 million prize. But, says Markoff, this year the race is likely to be completed, as robotics have taken a great leap - or step - forward.

"Computers are starting to sprout legs and move around in the environment," said Andy Rubin, a Silicon Valley technologist and a financial backer of this year's Stanford Racing Team, which produced Stanley. Mr. Rubin, who tinkers with robots himself, was the co-founder of Danger Inc., which created the Sidekick hand-held.

"The military are interested in more potent weapons, and by itself that's a bad answer," said [Sebastian] Thrun, a roboticist and director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. His broader goal is to advance robotics as a science and explore applications ranging from aids for the elderly to basic advances in intelligent computerized systems.

Several years ago, when Mr. Thrun was a professor at Carnegie Mellon and Mr. Montemerlo was a graduate student, they helped develop a prototype of a mobile robotic companion for the home that used natural-language voice commands and was able to provide useful information taken from the Internet like weather and television schedules.

There are a myriad of other possible applications for their software, which can reason about the immediate environment; distinguish sky from ground, road and trees; and make lightning-quick decisions.

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