Space & Innovation

From Oceans to Space: X Prizes Push Innovations

The nonprofit foundation promotes technological innovation by fostering the spirit of competition.

The spirit of competition is alive and well at X Prize, the nonprofit foundation that sponsors public technology competitions to tackle the world's greatest challenges. Founded in 1996, the Culver City, Calif.-based organization has awarded a half dozen major prize packages to date, and has several active competitions up and running. Each X Prize is designed to encourage innovation in a particular field by offering cash prizes, sponsorships, and great heaping mounds of publicity. Here we take a look at some intriguing X Prize projects -- past, present and future.

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The X Prize concept was inspired by the famed Orteig Prize. In 1919, French businessman Raymond Orteig offered $25,000 for the first nonstop flight between New York City and Paris. Eight years later, an unassuming 25-year-old air mail pilot by the name of Charles Lindbergh won the prize in the Spirit of St. Louis.

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Winner of the inaugural Ansari X Prize for Suborbital Spaceflight, SpaceShipOne was the first privately built and operated spacecraft to exceed an altitude of 100 km (62 miles) -- twice within 14 days, actually. The contest inspired 26 teams in total to jump-start the nascent industry of space tourism. GET MORE:

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The Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize was a series of challenges from 2007-2010 designed to inspire extremely fuel-efficient cars and other ground vehicles. The Very Light Car (VLC) prototype -- with a fuel efficiency equivalent of 102.5 mpg -- won the $5 million Mainstream competition. GET MORE:

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Team X-Tracer out of Switzerland won in a separate category for its enclosed electric motorcycle, boasting an equivalent fuel efficiency of more than 200 miles per gallon.

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Among the most ambitious of the currently active competitions, the Google Lunar X Prize is challenging tech teams to land a privately funded rover on the moon, travel at least 500 meters, and transmit back high-definition video. Automaker Audi is partnering with a German space team to develop the Audi Lunar Quattro Moon Rover -- concept art pictured here.

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Inspired by the "Star Trek" multipurpose gizmo, the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize is another currently active competition. The goal is to create a handheld medical device that can accurately and independently diagnose 13 different health conditions and five real-time health vital signs. Seven teams are currently in the running, although the timetable for the competition was recently extended to allow for more consumer testing.

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The Shell Ocean Discovery X Prize -- you may note a trend of corporate sponsorships on these competitions -- challenges teams to develop autonomous vehicles for deep ocean exploration. To win the $7 million in prize money, robotic exploration vehicles will eventually have to capture images, identify geological features and generate detailed maps at depths of 2,000 meters and 4,000 meters. GET MORE:

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Announced just last month, the IBM Watson A.I. X Prize is the foundation's latest competition. The goal is to develop new artificial intelligence systems to help solve major challenges related to health care, education and climate change issues. Official guidelines for the new X Prize will be announced in May.

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In addition to its lineup of active competitions, X Prize keeps a running queue of potential future events. The following are currently in rotation: space age batteries, electric roads and that old Jetsons standby, the flying car. Actually, you can

vote for your favorite right now

.

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