VT team shines in robot vehicle race
Virginia Tech's team placed third in the Urban Challenge race of autonomous vehicles
By Albert Raboteau
In the not-so-distant future, self-correcting vehicles may limit highway accidents, and robot cars may free soldiers or civilian contractors from dangerous duties like driving supply convoys in Iraq.
Virginia Tech researchers and students are helping to bring that day closer.
In November, a team from the university won the $500,000 prize for placing third -- behind Carnegie Mellon and Stanford, ahead of MIT -- in the Urban Challenge race of autonomous vehicles sponsored by the Defense Advance Projects Research Agency (DARPA), the lead research division of the U.S. Department of Defense.
DARPA has run such races previously in its push to satisfy Congress's mandate that one-third of combat vehicles be unmanned by 2015. Virginia Tech teams finished eighth and ninth in 2005.
This year's course was the most challenging yet. It required vehicles to navigate a series of simulated military supply missions without breaking traffic laws. No human intervention was allowed past the starting line.
Virginia Tech's entry, named Odin, finished the 60-mile course within the six hour time limit. Computers controlled Odin's throttle, brake, steering, and shifting while relying on input from multiple cameras and laser sensors, along with a GPS system. Odin's software was developed with help from TORC Technologies LLC., a company founded by Virginia Tech alumni that is located in the university's Corporate Research Center.
The university team, called VictorTango, consisted of students and faculty advisors from the mechanical engineering and geography departments. About 50 undergraduates and 10 graduate students were involved at some point in the project.
"Many engineers never get to the level they've gotten to and accomplished what they've accomplished at the ripe old age of 23 or 24," said Al Wicks, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who served as one of two team leaders for VictorTango, said of the students. "They're too young to appreciate that they've climbed Mount Everest
in their engineering careers."
The other team leader was Charles Reinholtz, a former Virginia Tech Alumni Distinguished Professor in the Department of Engineering Education. Two other faculty advisors were Dennis Hong, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Bill Carstensen, head of the geography department.
Reinholtz and Wicks were also team leaders for the Virginia Tech teams in the previous autonomous vehicle races run by DARPA. The promise Virginia Tech showed those contests probably helped the university secure a $1 million contract from the agency to develop vehicles for the 2007 contest.
But private support, including $100,000 from Caterpillar and two Escape hybrids donated by Ford Motor Co., was also an important factor in the team's success this year. And private support was essential to compete in earlier versions of the contest, when large DARPA grants were not available.
Whether from corporations or individuals, private funding is often an important component of groundbreaking academic research like that done by team VictorTango. Virginia Tech President Charles W. Steger has said private support provides the "margin of excellence" that distinguishes the best universities from their peers.
According to fiscal 2006 figures from the Chronicle of Higher Education, the market value of the endowments at each of the three other schools that finished in the top four of the DARPA race were more than twice the market value of the Virginia Tech Foundation's endowment.
University officials are aware of the disparity, and recently launched a $1 billion fundraising drive, largest in school history, to ensure their school will continue to stand out in an increasingly competitive higher education industry.
With a total goal of $1 billion, The Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future, which entered its public phase on Oct. 20, represents a new era in private fundraising for the most comprehensive university in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The campaign's funding priorities target five goals: academic excellence, the undergraduate experience, research facilities, Virginia Tech and the community, and the President's Discovery Fund, a pool of unrestricted funds.