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DARPA Grand Challenge
March 2, 2007 - A team of 25 MIT faculty, researchers and students, in partnership with Olin College, Draper Laboratories, and Lincoln Laboratory, is working toward what could be the car of the future: a vehicle that drives itself, with people as passengers or with no human passengers at all.
This November the MIT team will test its car against as many as 89 other qualifying teams fielded by universities, engineering schools, defense contractors, and car manufacturers and suppliers from around the country, in the culmination of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s third Grand Challenge competition.
Each member of MITs DARPA team has personal and professional reasons for participating in the Grand Challenge. Edwin Olson, a PhD candidate in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (EECS), envisions saving the lives of soldiers doing war-time supply runs. Seth Teller, Professor of Computer Science and Engineering in EECS, sees the challenge as a milestone on the way to the eventual elimination of car accidents. And Albert Huang, another EECS PhD student, dreams about the day that he can be driven safely to his parents’ house while reading the newspaper.
And a Grand Challenge it will be. The goal is to operate the vehicle safely and autonomously through 60 miles of urban surroundings in less than six hours. The competition will take place at a currently undisclosed location in the western United States.
The team will not know what the course looks like until the day of the event. They will then be given a route network description file (RNDF) with a topological map of the available roads in the course network, and a mission data file (MDF) with GPS coordinates for checkpoint locations within the network that the car must visit in sequential order.
Checkpoints will be stationary locations that the vehicle can reach only by first completing tasks like merging, passing other vehicles, and navigating safely through intersections and traffic circles, all while adhering to speed limits and other traffic laws.
The team’s strategy for attacking these problems involves multiple laser range scanners, high-rate video cameras, and automotive radar units. The data collected from these sensors is combined into a "local map" of the vehicle’s immediate surroundings, including such things as lane markings, stop lines, and hazards like potholes and other vehicles (there will be no pedestrians on the course). In the vehicle’s cargo area there will also be a cluster of up to 40 computers mounted in a compact rack, measuring roughly 5 cubic feet and drawing several kilowatts of power that processes the sensor data and performs autonomous planning and motion control.
For the team to make it to the final event in November, its vehicle must first pass a series of technical qualifying rounds. The next milestone is in April, when the team will present a technical paper describing the vehicle’s design and implementation. In June an observer from DARPA will conduct a site visit near MIT to evaluate the vehicle’s capabilities. The final milestone before the competition is a qualifying event in October in which each team will demonstrate its vehicle’s ability to navigate through a simple network of roads with other vehicles.
Among the many challenges the MIT team faces: this is their first try at the competition. All ten other "Track A" (funded) teams competing have experience with at least one of the previous DARPA challenges.
John Leonard, Associate Professor of Mechanical and Ocean Engineering, does not believe that his team is at a disadvantage because they are starting from scratch. "We have a fresh perspective and novel ways of thinking that could set us apart, and lead us to new ways of attacking the problem," Leonard said.
The MIT team’s novel ways of thinking also impressed David Barrett, Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering at Olin College. He and a team of undergraduate students at Olin College are responsible for the vehicle’s mechanical, electrical and safety sub-systems.
Draper Laboratory and MIT Lincoln Laboratory are also contributing substantial engineering time to the project, to help with scheduling, system engineering, sensor testing, and subsystem validation, for example.
Leonard believes it is precisely this mix of capabilities and interests from within MIT and its partners that caused this MIT team to be chosen from over 60 other applicants to compete in this challenge. There is a unique mixture of backgrounds in mechanical engineering, computer science, aeronautics, and information and decisions systems. The team is organized in three groups: vehicle engineering (including mechanical and electrical systems), planning and control, and perception.
Seth Teller, another faculty advisor for the challenge, sees the team’s relative lack of experience as additional motivation for hard work, and is proud of how far they have come already. "The students have made amazing advances in such a short time. I would be surprised if other teams have individually discovered all the things we have come up with on our own, in the nine months or so that we have been focusing on this effort."
He credits the team with learning how to communicate and divide labor. "The essence of this project is about doing great work, but it is also about learning to work with others from different technical specialties, and eventually communicating our methods effectively to the rest of the world."
Support for MIT’s team and its capabilities do not end with the faculty. Ford has donated a Ford Escape that the team is using as a rapid prototyping platform while another Ford vehicle, a Land Rover LR3, which will be used in the final competition, is rewired for autonomous operation. Quanta Computer has donated two blade servers containing 40 computers each, so that one may be used in each of the vehicles. The blade servers are among the fastest machines in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). CSAIL and MIT’s Departments of Aeronautics and Astronautics, EECS, and Mechanical Engineering have all contributed significant funds or other resources to the project.