Grand challenges

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Prizes are again becoming driving forces in technological innovation, both on the ground and in space. It’s a welcome trend, one that policy-makers should encourage.

Yesterday at the California Speedway, a group of vehicles started a week of qualifying rounds for a big race this Saturday. No one will be driving the full-sized machines. Only unmanned robotic vehicles will be allowed a spot in the starting line of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Grand Challenge.

The contest grew out of Department of Defense mandate to make one-third of combat vehicles capable of unmanned operations by 2015. To spur innovation from unlikely sources, the agency put up a purse of $1 million to any vehicle capable of covering approximately 200 miles of the Mojave Desert between Barstow, Calif., and Primm, Nev., located just outside of Las Vegas, within 10 hours. Twenty-five teams were invited to the qualifying round, ranging from the RoadWarriors of California’s Palos Verdes High School to the race favorite, Team Red, from Pittsburgh’s Carnegie-Mellon University.

The actual course won’t be revealed until two hours before the start of the race. Once the command is given to start, the only other signal that teams are allowed send is “Stop.” If no vehicle makes it through the boulders, barbed wire and other obstacles between them and the finish line, the contest will be held next year.

A slightly different contest with the same goal of encouraging innovation may soon have a winner. Later this year, the Federal Aviation Administration is expected to grant licenses to private groups attempting to win the X Prize, which will give $10 million to the first privately financed team to conduct two flights to an altitude of 62 miles within two weeks.

NASA has also seen the promise of prizes. The agency plans to hold a workshop this spring to solicit public comments for its recently announced Centennial Challenges program. For the next several years, between three and five challenges will be offered, a majority related to the president’s new space initiative. NASA has requested $20 million for the program in fiscal 2005, and if it receives congressional sanction, purses could be in the millions. The challenges are likely to be reviewed on an annual basis at the public conference. Innovators should also have the opportunity to contribute ideas to the Centennial Challenges program on a to-be-launched Web site. As Brant Sponberg, the program manager, said in an interview, “It will allow us to reach innovators who do not normally … think about NASA issues.” The program has the support of Sen. Sam Brownback, chairman of the science, technology and space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Science and Transportation Committee. It should receive the support of his colleagues.

As with the X Prize and the Grand Challenge, the Centennial Challenges will loose American innovation and give this country its real edge. Regardless of which robot wins Saturday’s contest, Americans come out ahead when given such challenges.

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