NORTH BERWICK (AP) – The monster vehicle sitting in the woods behind Geoffrey Howe’s house can mangle a shed, splash across a pond and zoom 60 mph. Its name is Rip Saw.

This 3,500-pound dual-tracked contraption is going to be entered in a Department of Defense competition to see if any vehicle can make it across the 170-mile Mojave Desert by itself, without a driver or remote controls. The winner will get $2 million.

Rip Saw has the brawn. Now it needs a brain, say Michael and Geoffrey Howe, 30-year-old identical twins who created the machine.

“It has never been done,” said Michael Howe. “But we’ll show that the twins from Maine can do it.”

The competition, to be held Oct. 8, 2005, is called the Grand Challenge for Autonomous Robotic Ground Vehicles and is put on the Defense Department’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.

Last year, DARPA hosted the challenge for the first time. The agency works as a link between entrepreneurs – from back yard innovators to world class engineers – and the Department of Defense to encourage technology innovation that will benefit the armed forces.

The idea is that in the future, unmanned vehicles could transfer supplies from one place to another in a war zone, or pick up injured soldiers left behind on the battlefield.

But making a few tons of metal think and move at the same time is no easy task. Not a single vehicle crossed the finish line in the first competition.

The best performer, a Hummer, tipped over a bank seven miles into the 142-mile-long race through rugged desert terrain. Others lost their global-positioning system connection and went around in circles.

The Howe brothers watched the race on the Discovery Channel and decided to try it on their own.

After attending an informational meeting in Anaheim, Calif., in mid-August, they concluded Rip Saw is ahead of the game.

“Many teams are sensor and computer engineers and look for sponsorships from Ford or Toyota. We saw a huge venue for us. Our platform has already been built,” said Geoffrey, who like his brother is self-taught. “It’s done, completed and tested through the ringer.”

The Howes have full-time jobs, Michael as a financial adviser and Geoffrey as assistant chief plant operator for the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, wastewater treatment facility. After work they head to the garage, big as a barn, where they often remain until midnight.

Two years ago they set out to build an off-road vehicle that would outperform any other. Rip Saw was born.

They say it will take about $200,000 and a lot of brains to turn it into a robot racing across the desert.

If they win the challenge, the brothers say they will make a footprint in history. The first autonomous vehicle could revolutionize transportation and turn drivers into passengers, punching in their destination on a computer. Cars would sense their environment, drive on their own, stop at red lights, turn and park.

Jack Kelly, a programmer from Dover, New Hampshire, has been brought on the team to create the first step toward that revolution: Rip Saw’s brain. It will require a global positioning system or GPS, Ladar (radar with laser), interfacing, and trial after trial after trial.

“My goal is to take 3,000 pounds of metal and turn it into something that can make a decision. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell,” Kelly said. “Its definitely possible, I don’t see why not.”

For now, Rip Saw sits like a giant insect on Geoffrey Howe’s 14-acre property.

Next to Rip Saw rests Godzilla, another custom off-road vehicle that has found fame in the mud racing circuit. A boat, American Badass, once sped 91 miles per hour and got them in “a lot of trouble” before being taken off the waterways.



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