(Bloomberg) -- In a modern-day version of John Henry taking on a steam drill, Lockheed Martin Corp. is pitting human pilots against artificial intelligence in a $2 million drone race.

The catch is that the computer-driven drones can’t be pre-programmed for the route or rely on human intervention. They must depend only on artificial intelligence and self-learning to navigate obstacle-filled racecourses that professional human drone pilots routinely rip through at more than 80 miles (130 kilometers) per hour, said Keoki Jackson, Lockheed’s chief technology officer.

“Competitors will have an opportunity to define the future of autonomy and AI and help our world leverage these promising technologies to build a brighter future,” Jackson said in a statement.

The idea is to push students, coders and other techies to come up with solutions for fully autonomous flight that can compete with skilled remote pilots. The advances that teams develop could lay the foundation for a future of thousands of unpiloted drones traversing the sky.

Lockheed, which makes the F-35 Lightning II fighter jet, is teaming up with the Drone Racing League and chipmaker Nvidia Corp. to create the AlphaPilot Innovation Challenge. Entries for AI competitors will open in November with selected participants vying for more than $2 million in prizes.

The first team to beat a human pilot will win $250,000, faring much better than the legendary John Henry, who laid down his hammer and he died.

To contact the reporter on this story: Thomas Black in Dallas at tblack@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Brendan Case at bcase4@bloomberg.net, Tony Robinson, Susan Warren

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