Researched and refined, Virginia Tech's Cliff and Rocky ready for Grand Challenge victory

09/30/05

Blacksburg, Va. -- Equipped with the latest in navigational and computer technology and programmed to fend for themselves, Virginia Tech's "Cliff" and "Rocky" are among an elite group of 43 autonomous vehicles rallying in California for the final rounds of the $2 million DARPA Grand Challenge competition.

The Virginia Tech Grand Challenge team -- most of them undergraduate engineering students -- have devoted much of the past year-and-a-half to the research and development necessary for converting two off-road, four-wheel-drive utility vehicles donated by Club Car into vehicles programmed to navigate and maneuver with no human intervention.

Virginia Tech and Carnegie Mellon University are the only competitors that each developed two vehicles selected for the final qualifying event, which runs through Oct. 5 at the California Speedway in Fontana.

"Cliff and Rocky have been thoroughly refined and tested," said Charles Reinholtz, Alumni Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering (ME) and co-advisor, along with ME professor Alfred Wicks and graduate student Brett Leedy, of the Virginia Tech team.

"We logged several hundred autonomous miles on each vehicle at our test field in Blacksburg," Reinholtz said. The team also took Rocky to the U.S. Army's Yuma Proving Grounds in Arizona and ran it for several days in a desert environment similar to the one vehicles must navigate for the Grand Challenge.

The team whose vehicle completes the 150 mile course in the Mojave Desert the fastest within a ten-hour time period -- with no human intervention allowed past the starting line -- will win the $2 million prize.

Early on in the qualifying event at the California Speedway, Cliff and Rocky "passed the static and dynamic inspection without a hitch," Reinholtz said. All 43 vehicles will undergo inspections and a number of track runs before judges narrow the field to 20 vehicles that will go to the Grand Challenge starting line for the race on Oct. 8.

The race will take place in the desert and mountains near Primm, Nev. The exact course, which will include desert roads, mountain paths and dry lake beds, won't be revealed to the competing teams until two hours before the race begins.

DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), the research arm of the U.S. Defense Department, narrowed an original field of 195 entries to a first round group of 118 teams earlier this year. During the summer, DARPA technical staff conducted on-site visits to select the 43 vehicles that would go to California for final qualifying. The 43 vehicles were developed by teams from universities, corporations, engineering firms -- and even a high school.

DARPA offered a prize of $1 million for the first Grand Challenge, held in March 2004. Cliff, the 2004 Virginia Tech entry, was one of only 15 out of an original field of 106 to qualify for the final starting line cut last year. No vehicle traveled farther than about seven miles during last year's competition.

The revamped Cliff and his counterpart Rocky are equipped with on-board computers that communicate with advanced sensing technology, including Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Geographical Information System data, radar, laser rangefinders and thermal imaging cameras. The team have programmed the vehicles to interpret terrain and make all decisions about navigation, route planning and obstacle avoidance.

"Our vehicles are much better this year for many reasons," said Reinholtz. "We've added a computer vision system and have upgraded the base vehicles and a number of key components, including computers, scanning laser rangefinders, power distribution systems, GPS and inertial navigation systems. We also added more on-board diagnostic capability, so we're better able to solve problems and benchmark performance."

DARPA's goal in sponsoring a second competition and increasing the prize to $2 million is to continue to encourage university and industry engineering teams to help develop unmanned vehicles that the military can deploy in dangerous situations. The competing teams have received no financial support from DARPA.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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