Spc. Jesse LaMorte, Special Operations Task Force-South
Soldiers with Special Operations Task Force-South prepare to load an all-terrain vehicle onto a CH-47 Chinook helicopter in preparation for a rapid offload during operations Oct. 1, in the Maruf district, Kandahar province, Afghanistan.
updated 7/22/2011 3:35:07 PM ET 2011-07-22T19:35:07

Self-driving cars may already seem like a dubious idea to most drivers, but the U.S. Air Force wants to raise the stakes. U.S. Special Forces soldiers may soon trust their lives to a stealth robot jeep that can autonomously carry them to their target and back, through mountainous terrain under the cover of nightfall, without alerting enemy patrols.

The robotic vehicle must have the ability to carry two warfighters and up to 700 pounds of gear over more than 18 miles of rugged terrain, according to the request for information issued by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). And it must be capable of navigating enemy territory stealthily, day or night, under any weather conditions.

"The mission will be executed under the cover of night and the system must be able to work autonomously with only minimal inputs from the warfighters," says the AFRL. "The hostile area does not have radar, but they do have patrols who will respond to visual and audible cues if they detect something out of the ordinary."

The AFRL also requested that the robotic vehicle must fit within the cargo hold of a CV-22 Osprey, the tilt-rotor aircraft that carries Marines around Afghanistan and ferried Osama bin Laden's body out of Pakistan.

Plenty of academic and private teams have developed robotic vehicles capable of some autonomous driving, either on their own or as part of DARPA's Grand Challenge. Google has even tested its self-driving vehicles in the San Francisco Bay Area. But driving on paved roads is a far cry from navigating rough terrain and perhaps having the capability to actively avoid possible enemies.

Still, the Air Force lab has wisely sought out "new ideas from hobbyists, enthusiasts, teams and organizations that have not typically done business with the government in the past."

The recent notice precedes an upcoming request for proposals that would award $200,000 to each of up to five teams for stealthy design concepts. Each team would eventually have the chance to compete for a $2 million contract to build a prototype of their dream robotic jeep.

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