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Engineering students sweep international intelligent vehicle competition


BLACKSBURG, Va., July 5, 2005 – The Virginia Tech Autonomous Vehicle Team swept the international Intelligent Ground Vehicles Competition (IGVC), placing first, second, and third, and winning eight out of nine event categories along with $15,000 in prizes. The event took place June 11-13 in Traverse City, Mich.

Dominating the IGVC is becoming a tradition for the Virginia Tech team, led by faculty advisers Charles Reinholtz and Alfred Wicks, professors of mechanical engineering in the College of Engineering. In 2004, the team placed best overall, won six of nine categories, and was the only group from the U.S. to place in any category. The team also won the competition in 2000 and 1998.

Much of the design and construction for the three vehicles entered in the 2005 IGVC was performed under the guidance of mechanical engineering graduate students Andrew Bacha of Reston, Va., Sean Baity of Westminster, Md.; and Brett Gombar of Montclair, Va.

Several members of the team graduated from Virginia Tech in May with bachelor’s degrees in mechanical engineering: Jeremy Blodgett of Scotia, N.Y.; David Eargle, of Charlotte, N.C.; Jordan Felps, of Moseley, Va.; Jake Greene, of Arnold, Md.; Tony Johnson, of Richmond, Va.; Nick Miller, of Cockeysville, Md.; and Jon Weekley, of Cincinnati, Ohio. Mike Avitable of Chatham, N.J., earned his degree in electrical and computer engineering. The other team members are returning mechanical engineering seniors Bobby Mott of Ashburn, Va.; David Oatley, of Washington, N.J.; Sylvia Rigsby, of Mineral, Va.; and Colin Todd, of Columbus, Ohio.

The Virginia Tech team entered three of the 37 autonomous vehicles that competed in this year’s IGVC. Autonomous vehicles are equipped with computer, sensor, and navigational technologies and are programmed to maneuver without any human intervention.

During the IGVC, vehicles must navigate a course outlined by painted white lines, while maneuvering around construction barrels and other obstacles. The vehicles also must autonomously navigate to a series of GPS (global positioning system) waypoints while avoiding numerous obstacles, including mesh fences. In addition, the entries are judged on design innovations.

The three Virginia Tech vehicles — Gemini, Johnny-5, and Polaris — are equipped with navigational sensors, including digital cameras to determine course boundaries, scanning laser range finders to identity obstacles, global positioning systems (GPS), and digital compasses.

The sensors on each vehicle are linked by 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 Virginia Tech students implemented in the software.

The vehicles also have variations in body construction and power sources. Gemini, which placed first in all three event categories — navigation challenge, autonomous challenge, and design — is powered solely by batteries. Johnny-5 and Polaris have hybrid electric power systems that use gasoline generators as well as batteries.

“Our team has done well because we have great students,” Reinholtz said. “Also, the team has continuity. Sean Baity, Brett Gombar, and Andrew Bacha started as undergraduates and have stayed with the team as graduate advisers. Another example is Mike Avitabile, who joined the team as a freshman — this year was his fifth competition. It’s a great apprenticeship program where more experienced members teach the newer members.”