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April 2003

Tech Autonomous Vehicles Round the Bend for Museum

While designing and building a museum exhibit about future transportation technology, a student/faculty research team has incorporated some new control robotic sensing and technology. The engineering team in the Flexible, Low-cost Automated Scaled Highway (FLASH) Laboratory is completing a scale model, autonomous vehicles, interactive kiosk, and display screen, which are slated for installation in two Virginia transportation museums.

The exhibit demonstrates infrared control, optical control, and magnetic control of autos. The cars conduct themselves around a track with hills and curves. The vehicle on board control system also maintains a safe distance from other vehicles and obstacles on the track. The obstacle consists of a falling tree that is activated by a spectator. The cars are programmed to go to the recharging station when necessary, while a separate track computer system monitors and controls how many vehicles are on the track at once.

The system uses magnetic field sensors or infrared sensors to determine the car’s lateral position. To track a white line on the road, the infrared sensors are used. An onboard camera transmits what the car sees and displays it on a large screen for the audience. A number of elements were integrated to make the system “kid proof,” including a mechanism to prevent an audience member from using the falling tree to crush the vehicles.

Implementing the control algorithms also proved challenging. “Theoretical control algorithms assume away a lot that we had to compensate for,” explained Mark Morton (MSEE ‘04). “For example, most of the algorithms we started with assumed an instantaneous turn on a curve, whereas our vehicles were decidedly not turning instantaneously.”

ECE students on the team include Morton, Patricia Mellodge, and Eric Moret. Pushkin Kachroo is the ECE team advisor. The FLASH laboratory is part of the Center for Transportation Research. The project is sponsored by the Virginia Department of Transportation as a part of the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. Co-sponsors and hosts include the Science Museum of Virginia, located in Richmond, and the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke.

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