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Pentagon Offers $2-Million Prize to Build Unmanned Desert Vehicle

The U.S. military hopes robots will begin replacing soldiers in dangerous situations in coming years, and officials are asking researchers to help develop the technology. As VOA's Brian Wagner reports, dozens of groups are scrambling to compete in a Pentagon challenge to build an unmanned desert vehicle.

The Pentagon launched the Grand Challenge last year to draw more research into using robotic technology to control an un-manned all-terrain vehicle.

Again this year, the contest is drawing researchers and technology experts from around the country to design and build vehicles that can finish a 280-kilometer course in the U.S. desert with no human interaction.

One of those hoping to build a successful vehicle and maybe win the $2 million prize is Devraj Sandhu, a student at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Virginia.

He says the Grand Challenge opens all new opportunities outside the classroom.

"At school, someone is working on a robot to find tennis balls and bring it back. And he gets to use one camera and a little, dinky range finder. And it's still pretty daunting, and he's using lego pieces and small pc boards. Here we're engineering an entire ATV to work at 25 mph dodging obstacles. It's the scope of the problem," says Devraj Sandhu.

Mr. Sandhu is taking advantage of a mentorship program to help design a vehicle at a Virginia research-and-development company called Ensco. He and four classmates are designing software to control the vehicle, which uses laser detection systems to detect and avoid obstacles in its path.

"It really boosts your confidence to be able to say I'm going to do this for this meeting, and I'll meet you halfway. To be treated as an equal from these professional programmers is a really good feeling," says Devraj.

The leader of team Ensco, Gary Carr, says the Pentagon-sponsored contest is providing a spark for new kinds of research. He says, "I think they want to get a lot of people involved, in autonomous vehicles, and to look for new technologies that aren't standard, that people can find off the shelves. We hope to be one of those companies that people will look to use in the future."

He says the Grand Challenge helps the company explore new technologies and discover possible new business opportunities. Already a railroad equipment group has asked Ensco to modify its vehicle entered in last year's contest for use on the rails.

Mr. Carr says although the so-called David vehicle failed to complete the desert course last year, the technology adapted well for the railroad, to monitor potential flaws in the rails or find obstacles ahead of an oncoming train.

But when this year's race comes around in October, the ENSCO team is hoping to find more than just new business opportunities -- they're hoping to win the desert challenge.