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CHALLENGE 1, ROBO-RACERS 0

xtrasmall_grand challenge 028.jpgA million dollars waits the winner of the Darpa Grand Challenge, the all-robot, off-road rally across the Mojave Desert, slated for this weekend. But at the rate the race's preparations are going, there may not be a winner at all.None of the drones that attempted to qualify on Monday made it through a simple obstacle course at the California Speedway, nestled in the San Bernadino Mountains about 60 miles east of Los Angeles. Others aren't expected to traverse more than a few hundred feet of the 210 mile trek, scheduled to begin early Saturday morning.xtrasmall_grand challenge 035.jpgEven Sandstorm the Carnegie Mellon University multi-million dollar, pilotless Humvee that's the envy of most of the other teams here went through a near-death experience just a few days ago, and just about limped to the track.Sponsored by Darpa, the Pentagon's research arm, the Challenge is a presents competitors with a monumental task: to get a robot to drive itself across the desert, when most of the drones the military uses today have a human piloting them from afar. It's a mission that's so far eluded the Defense Department's brightest minds and its biggest contractors.What makes completing the Challenge a nearly miraculous feat is that most of the competitors are amateurs: entrepreneurs, college professors, moonlighters and even a team of high-school kids."We barely made it here," said C.J. Pedersen, a Los Angeles mechanical design consultant and part-time race-car driver. His handcrafted, wedge-shaped drone, A.I. Motorvator, had its share of false starts.My Wired News article has details.xtrasmall_grand challenge 048.jpgTHERE'S MORE: Over the New Year's holiday, the proposed routes for the Grand Challenge allegedly leaked online, throwing the drone teams into a tizzy. Some robot builders even argued that the rally was "pointless" after the alleged disclosure.But Darpa chief Tony Tether denied Monday that the leak ever happened. "We didn't know the route until a week ago," he said. The information shown online only showed "1500 miles" where the rally's route "could be."

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