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15 teams qualify for Mojave robot race

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Robots race for cool million
Red Team, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania

SciAutonics II, Thousand Oaks, California

Team Caltech, Pasadena, California

Digital Auto Drive, Morgan Hill, California

Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Virginia

Axion Racing, Westlake Village, California

Team CajunBot, Lafayette, Louisiana

Team ENSCO, Falls Church, Virginia

Team CIMAR, Gainesville, Florida and Logan, Utah

Palos Verdes High School Road Warriors, Palos Verdes Estates, California

SciAutonics I, Thousand Oaks, California

Team TerraMax, Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Team Terrahawk, Gardena, California

The Golem Group, Santa Monica, California

The Blue Team, Berkeley, California
Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency

FONTANA, California (CNN) -- Of more than 100 entries, only 15 robotic vehicles, ranging from a motorcycle to a mega-military truck, made the final cut.

They will be at the starting line in Barstow, California, Saturday for the strange and historic Grand Challenge race, part of the government's search for a better robot.

Beginning at dawn, the robots will tackle a course that is expected to stretch about 200 miles across the Mojave Desert to a finish line in Primm, Nevada, near Las Vegas.

"We're either going to finish the race, or we're going to go off a cliff," said Jay Gowdy, project scientist with the Red Team from Carnegie Mellon University, whose heavily modified Humvee is favored to win.

The first robot to cross the finish line -- under the 10-hour time limit -- will collect a $1 million prize. Because the project is unique, no one is really sure if any of the vehicles will be sturdy enough to win.

"We don't know. There are three to four with a very, very good chance," said Anthony Tether, director of DARPA.

"But I'm not sure what the odds are in Vegas," he told reporters at a news conference Friday.

The secretive Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is sponsoring the Grand Challenge to find autonomous military vehicles that protect soldiers from tasks that are dangerous, dirty or dull.

"If we can minimize harm using these robots, and save human beings, then that's what we want to do," said Col. Jose Negron, DARPA's program manager for the race.

Of the 21 teams that arrived, 15 teams survived the grueling qualification, inspection, and demonstration event at the California Speedway in Fontana, California this week.

The robots were put through obstacle and speed tests to make sure they would be safe. While only seven teams completed the speedway course, eight others came close enough to convince judges that they could safely compete.

The robots are expected to leave at about five minute intervals, beginning at 6:30 a.m. PT Saturday.

Teams will not get the final course instructions until about two hours before the race. Once they leave the starting line, the robots are on their own: no human intervention is allowed. Each of the robots will be followed by a chase vehicle with three human occupants. The robots can be manually "paused" or "killed" via a laptop computer in case of an emergency.

Along with the chase vehicles, several wreckers also will be waiting along the course. About 500 people, including staff and volunteers, will be involved in the race, DARPA officials said.

For months, the Bureau of Land Management has assessed the course to try to protect wildlife that lives there.

On Friday, 20 biologists were putting protective pens around desert tortoise burrows until the race is complete. DARPA's director says the agency has invested about $13 million in the project, including the $1 million prize. But he says there has already been a tremendous return on investment.

"The real thing we are getting is that thousands of people are now working on a vital problem for the Department of Defense," said Tether. "This has shaped the lives of some young people in a positive way. That is priceless."

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