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Competing for Real

Contests that spur innovation should be encouraged.

HENRY PETROSKI Challenges and contests are familiar to engineering students, many of whom have engaged in such activities as egg drop competitions and concrete canoe races. The prize is seldom more than a trophy and bragging rights, but the lessons learned can be invaluable.

Increasingly, real-world engineering challenges and contests with substantial monetary prizes are being promoted as means of encouraging the development of desirable new technologies, such as lightweight batteries, efficient solar cells, and innovative spacecraft.

The entrants and competitors might as easily be teams from large corporations and small-business ventures as from universities and colleges. The sponsors of the competitions often want to open them up to all comers in the hopes of tapping new sources of innovation and nontraditional, out-of-the-box thinking.

The idea of a technology prize is not new, of course. In the 18th century, the British government offered £20,000 for a method for determining longitude at sea. In the early 20th century, the $25,000 Orteig Prize motivated early aviators to attempt a nonstop flight between New York and Paris, the feat that Charles Lindbergh accomplished in 1927.

It is not only fame and fortune that attract competitors. The winning team will have an enormous advantage in the marketplace opened up by a new technology. Even if the prize money does not equal the winner's research and development expenditure, a government-sponsored competition can have the further allure of massive purchasing contracts going to the proven technology leader.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, when gasoline was approaching $5 a gallon in California, candidate John McCain proposed a $300 million prize for a battery pack that would enable cars equipped with it to outperform existing hybrid and electric vehicles. McCain reminded potential voters that the prize would cost taxpayers only $1 per capita and could produce a giant step in the direction of energy independence.

The proposal may have been suggested by an idea for an as-then-unfunded Superbattery Prize valued at $1 billion or the earlier announcement of a Pentagon-sponsored competition known as the Wearable Power Prize. It promoted a new technology like a fuel cell that would lighten the load (as much as 20 pounds) of batteries that soldiers have to carry into the field to run their night-vision goggles, radios, computers, and other electronic equipment.

Since 2004, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been sponsoring competitions to encourage the development of autonomous robotic vehicles that could deliver supplies in a war zone. The $1 million first prize has attracted many competitors to the Mojave Desert test course.

There is also a growing number of alphabet prizes. The $10 million Ansari X PRIZE, for a privately financed spacecraft that twice in a two-week period could give three adult passengers a ride reaching 100 kilometers in altitude, was won in 2004 by Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne. An improved version figures in Virgin Galactic's business plan for $200,000 rides into space.

Google sponsors the $20 million Lunar X PRIZE, which goes to the first entrant to get a rover to range at least 500 meters about the moon's surface and send images back to Earth. The Department of Energy's $10 million L Prize for an efficient light bulb already has an entrant, and it is undergoing testing to see if it lasts the required 25,000 hours.

Such prizes, which have been described as a new form of philanthropy, certainly encourage research and development programs that can yield new technologies extremely beneficial to military forces, space businesses, and the planet alike. They are to be encouraged inasmuch as they encourage engineers to give serious thought to challenging problems.

Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic professor of civil engineering and a professor of history at Duke University. His latest book, The Essential Engineer: Why Science Alone Will Not Solve Our Global Problems, was recently published.




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