The US government is offering a prize of R8,2 million to anyone who can build a computer-controlled 4x4 that can navigate on its own over a 402-km desert course in less than 10 hours.

The US government is offering a prize of R8,2 million to anyone who can build a computer-controlled 4x4 that can navigate on its own over a 402-km desert course in less than 10 hours.

George W Bush’s war machine may be preparing to unleash its wrath on Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi troops, but that does not mean that Darpa (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) is kicking its heels. Darpa is America’s research-and-development clearing house for the military and brought the world such useful things as smart bombs, stealth fighters and the Internet.

Darpa wants to develop robot-controlled off-road vehicles so that fewer humans need to be endangered by armed conflict. In theory, computer-controlled navigation systems would render armoured attack units impervious to attack by biological agents.

This is the reason why Darpa recently launched its Grand Challenge for Autonomous Robotic Ground Vehicles. We’ve all heard about remote-controlled vehicles, and robotic submarines, but there is currently nothing that can navigate on its own over a 402 km desert course in less than 10 hours - the gauntlet DARPA is mandating for the prize. Hence, the Grand Challenge.

“I believe that somewhere out there are some kids or maybe some people in government who have something that can do this,” Darpa spokesman Anthony Tether told .

Are there any plucky mechanical and electronic engineers, or some very gifted software programmers, who can build such a vehicle in South Africa? Maybe such projects are already in existence, but are kept secret… Who knows, maybe the winner of the Grand Challenge will be recruited to work for a secret US government agency - or Darpa itself.

This is how the Americans have been faring in their preparations for the challenge: Darpa recently held a “Competitors’ Conference” in Los Angeles and the event saw a strong turnout of robotics experts, “sensing” specialists and desert racers. Most were private individuals from smaller companies, but name tags in the crowd also showed people from Nasa and Boeing.

From that meeting, who knows how many teams will build a vehicle and be on the starting line in March 2004?

“I find it hard to believe there’s something other than the human mind that can do all that stuff,” said Sal Fish, president of the desert race sanctioning body that has laid out three possible routes the vehicles will take next year.

“But they’ve got all these geeks who can do all the computer stuff and we’ve got all these grease balls who are already doing the race trucks. Now all we have to do is get them together.”