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Winter 2004

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Editor's note: Virginia Tech's vehicle suffered a lockup of the brakes in the starting area. None of the 15 teams successfully completed the designated route for the 2004 Challenge. The cash award for the next challenge is $2 million


Winter 2004

Student Engineering Team Competing for $1 Million in Robotic Vehicle Contest

ECE students are helping build an autonomous off-road vehicle to travel between Los Angeles and Los Vegas in a contest with a $1 million prize. The team is competing with 25 other teams from industry and universities. Shown here is a montage of the Virginia Tech vehicle (photo by David Burke) and the type of terrain that might be seen in the competition (photo courtesy of DARPA).

A group of five ECE students is working on a multidisciplinary team to win $1 million for developing an autonomous ground vehicle that can travel a combination on- and off-road course from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in March.

The Virginia Tech students are competing in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Grand Challenge that covers about 250 miles. Although the general path is known in advance, the teams will not be given the course information until two hours before the competition. The vehicle that completes the course in less than 10 hours and is the first to the finish line will win the $1 million prize.

The Tech team is one of 25 teams that qualified for the competition out of 106 initial applicants. Competing teams represent engineering firms, independent innovators, a high school team, and nine universities, including CalTech, Carnegie Mellon, and the University of California-Berkeley.

VT Off-Road Utility Cart
Tech’s vehicle is an off-road, four-wheel-drive utility cart made by Club Car. The students are modifying the cart to include autonomous steering, braking, and acceleration, as well as sensing, computing, and control equipment. Competing vehicles are to be completely autonomous.

Reliable Power Critical
With seven on-board processors requiring power in addition to the vehicle’s sensors and other equipment, the team chose to use a 2800-watt gasoline-powered generator with an AC-DC converter to power the DC devices. The team plans for the vehicle to carry enough gasoline to complete the entire course without needing autonomous refueling.

The participating ECE students are in the software and electronics groups, working to overcome the challenges of long-term operation in an unforgiving environment.

Components for a Desert Environment
The need for extremely robust components presents an interesting challenge, according to Mike Avitabile (EE ’04), a member of the electronics group. “We have a number of computers and sensitive electronics,” he said. “Not only do the electronics need a good, steady source of power, but they also have to survive the heat and dust of the desert. This is an open utility vehicle with no air conditioning. It’s also going to be a rough ride, so the electronics need to be well secured.”

Interpreting the Navigation Inputs
Another challenge facing the team is integrating the different navigation systems. The vehicle will be using a DGPS/INS system along with GIS navigation and radar and laser range finders. “It’s a challenge trying to interpret the sensing information to determine which system to go with at any given time,” said Bill Grefe (MSEE ’05).

 “The laser range finders will say one thing and the radar another,” he explained. “Do we go around an obstacle, or is it short enough to simply ride over?” The software team is working to develop rules of thumb to use in making navigation decisions, he said.

Serving as the ECE Experts
Most of the team is composed of ME students doing their senior design project, with a sprinkling of geography majors and a history major. Avitabile, who has several years’ experience with similar teams for the autonomous vehicle competition said that the experience has helped him tremendously. There are significant ECE issues with these projects, he explained. “When you are one of just a few ECEs, you are required to learn a lot. It’s a great experience,” he said.

In addition to Avitabile and Grefe, ECE team members include Rob Chang (CPE ’05), Nefaur Kandkher (CPE ’06), and Anthony Lee (EE ’06). Faculty leader on the project is Charles Reinholtz (ME), with advisors Alred Wicks (ME), Bill Carstensen (Geography), Daniel Stilwell (ECE), Hayden Griffin (EF), and Doug Nelson (ME).


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