DARPA Grand Challenge/Virginia Tech two


PHOTO (select to view enlarged photo)


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

BLACKSBURG, Va., Sept. 30, 2005 - 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.

For more information about the Virginia Tech team and vehicles, visit 
their web site at http://www.me.vt.edu/grandchallenge/. To follow the 
competition from the qualifying round through the race, visit 
http://www.darpa.mil/grandchallenge/.

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