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Students dominate international autonomous vehicle competition


BLACKSBURG, Va., July 22, 2004 – The Virginia Tech Autonomous Vehicle Team won first place overall — as well as six out of nine event categories and $12,200 in cash awards — during the 12th annual Intelligent Ground Vehicles Competition (IGVC), held in June at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich.

The Virginia Tech team, which constructed three of the 28 vehicles entered in the competition, also was the only group from the United States to place in any event category. Teams from Japan's Hosei University and Canada's University of Alberta placed second and third, respectively, overall.

The majority of Virginia Tech team members were mechanical engineering (ME) undergraduates: Sean Baity of Westminster, Md.; Neal Buchanan, Middlebrook, Va.; Michael Chaney, Abingdon, Va.; Jared Cooper, Stafford, Va.; Jacob Dillow, Wytheville, Va.; Michael Fleming, Blacksburg; Brett Gombar, Montclair, Va.; Jessica Greene, Halifax, Va.; Curtis Hall, Stuarts Draft, Va.; Patrick Hall, Madison Heights, Va.; Ryan Limpin, Virginia Beach, Va.; Karl Muecke, Purcellville, Va.; Andrew Skidmore, Christiansburg, Va.; Matt Swean, Alexandria, Va.; John Paul Thomas, Stuart, Va.; Brent Weigel, Yorktown, Va.; and Nathan Welch, Manassas, Va.

Also on the team were Michael Avitabile, an electrical and computer engineering undergraduate from Chatham, N.J.; and mechanical engineering graduate students Andrew Bacha, Ruel Farque, and Ankur Naik, all of Blacksburg.

Autonomous vehicles are equipped with computer and navigational technologies and programmed to maneuver without any direct human intervention. During the IGVC, each vehicle was judged in three events — the autonomous challenge, navigation challenge and design competition.

Virginia Tech's "Johnny-5" vehicle placed first overall in the IGVC, first in the autonomous challenge, second in the navigation challenge and second in the design competition. "Gemini" placed third overall, third in the autonomous challenge, and first in design. The students built Johnny-5 and Gemini from scratch for this year's competition. "Optimus," which won first place overall during the 2003 IGVC, was entered again this year and placed third in the navigation challenge.

The three Virginia Tech vehicles were similarly designed and equipped for the competition, said Sean Baity, leader of the group that created Gemini. Each has four navigational sensors — a digital camera to determine course boundaries, a scanning laser range finder to identify obstacles, a global positioning system (GPS), and a digital compass.

The sensors are tied together with LabView software developed by National Instruments, the team's major industry sponsor. LabView analyzes sensor input and commands vehicle motion. The primary differences in vehicle operation are the result of variations the team implemented in the software.

"The autonomous challenge is the most prestigious event at the competition and the event that the most teams enter," said Brett Gombar, leader of the group that created Johnny-5. The goal was for vehicles to navigate a 603-feet-long course, framed by painted white lines, and avoid orange construction barrels placed as obstacles — all with no human intervention.

Johnny-5 zipped through the obstacle course in only three minutes and 30 seconds. "The second place team from Hosei University completed the course in over eight minutes," Gombar said.

Gemini won the design competition, which consisted of a written design report, an oral presentation, and vehicle inspection by IGVC judges. "Gemini was presented as the total package," Baity said. "Reliability, flexibility of design, ease of use and professional appearance were emphasized as the selling points of the vehicle's design." Johnny-5, which has a hybrid electric power system, came in second for design.

"The quality of entries in this year's IGVC was better than ever before," said Charles Reinholtz, an Alumni Distinguished Professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech and co-adviser of the autonomous vehicle team. "Our students worked relentlessly to refine their vehicles and their accompanying reports and presentations. They also developed some very clever algorithms to address previously intractable navigation problems."

Baity and Gombar, both of whom received their bachelor's degrees in May and are now mechanical engineering graduate students at Virginia Tech, plan to work again next year readying vehicles for the IGVC. "The bar was raised this year in regards to performance and vehicle design," Gombar said. "The future of Gemini and Johnny-5 looks bright. One of our major goals is to refine them so they can be sold to industry as test platforms. We are definitely close to that goal with these two vehicles."

"Our students, some of them only sophomores, are involved in sophisticated technological work," said the team's co-adviser, Al Wicks, professor of mechanical engineering. "We've had great success for several years at the IGVC because we have excellent students and quality tools for them to work with — plus the organizational and leadership skills of Charlie Reinholtz."

Founded in 1872 as a land-grant college, Virginia Tech has grown to become among the largest universities in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Today, Virginia Tech's eight colleges are dedicated to putting knowledge to work through teaching, research, and outreach activities and to fulfilling its vision to be among the top 30 research universities in the nation. At its 2,600-acre main campus located in Blacksburg and other campus centers in Northern Virginia, Southwest Virginia, Hampton Roads, Richmond, and Roanoke, Virginia Tech enrolls more than 28,000 full- and part-time undergraduate and graduate students from all 50 states and more than 100 countries in 180 academic degree programs.

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college's 5,600 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 2,000 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics, and nanotechnology.