"There's a lot of good news about working with DARPA," adds Senturia. First, he says, "they have a lot of money." Second, they don't take a lot of time to decide whether they'll green-light a project or not. "DARPA's [review] is the best I ever encountered," says Senturia. "The program managers have a great deal of authority."

Like the fruits of previous DARPA research, the advanced sensing devices developed by Senturia's team are now being adapted for industry, in this case, telecommunications. Senturia used some of the team's basic research as inspiration for new commercial technology. Chemical sensing was the launchpad for an advance in optical switching devices - tiny mirrors that can put the next generation of complex telecommunications systems into hyperdrive. Think broadband with a turbo boost - and the many ways that could change the business world. True multimedia might even work.

DARPA's no publicity hound, but its jump into high-stakes racing is a neon sign for innovators that it wants more people thinking about the things that keep generals up at night. People, incidentally, outside the usual tightly knit university research groups. New targets include inventors at work in Hollywood who just might have bright ideas for military minds.

Off-road racers, amateur robotics enthusiasts, and entertainment gurus should all take note: More cash prizes are in the offing to encourage fast-track development of other sorts of technology. Even this race could have a sequel: If no vehicle completes it this time around, the agency will sponsor another 12-18 months later.