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Urban Challenge team receives $1 million in funding


BLACKSBURG, Va., Oct. 30, 2006 – "VictorTango," a team of Virginia Tech engineering and geography students, will enter the national Urban Challenge autonomous vehicle competition with solid support--$1 million in funding from the competition's sponsor, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

In addition, Ford Motor Co. has donated two Escape hybrid SUVs and Caterpillar Inc. plans to fund a $100,000 grant for the team.

From an international roster of 65 Urban Challenge proposals, DARPA selected VictorTango as one of only 11 “track A” teams that will each receive a $1 million contract to develop autonomous vehicles capable of conducting simulated military supply missions in an urban setting.

On Oct. 23, DARPA Urban Challenge program manager Norman Whitaker visited Virginia Tech to kick off the team’s year-long project. VictorTango joins five other track A academic teams — the California Institute of Technology, Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Stanford University. The five other track A teams represent industries including Honeywell Aerospace Advanced Technology, Oshkosh Truck Corp. and Raytheon.

The teams are attempting to develop vehicles capable of traveling a 60-mile course through traffic in less than six hours — with no human intervention allowed past the starting line. The vehicles will have to obey traffic signals, merge into moving traffic, navigate traffic circles, negotiate intersections and avoid a variety of obstacles.

VictorTango will convert the two Escape hybrids donated by Ford into autonomous vehicles by outfitting them with “drive-by-wire” systems and an array of sensors and computers for navigation (drive-by-wire technology replaces a vehicle’s mechanical components with electronic controls).

“The drive-by-wire systems will interface with the hybrids’ systems to allow the computers we’ll install to control throttles, shifters, brakes and steering,” said Patrick Currier, a mechanical engineering graduate student and the VictorTango team leader.

Currier is one of 10 graduate students on the Virginia Tech team, which also includes about 50 undergraduates. The students are guided by four faculty advisers: College of Engineering professors Charles Reinholtz and Alfred Wicks and assistant professor Dennis Hong, all from mechanical engineering; and geography professor Bill Carstensen from the College of Natural Resources.

The team will outfit the vehicles with sensors, including advanced laser rangefinders, radar, computer vision and GPS (global positioning system) technology, Currier said. One of the Escapes, dubbed “Odin” by the team, will be equipped with a powerful computer bank to process the sensor information and make intelligent decisions. Odin will compete in the Urban Challenge.

The other Escape will be outfitted with sensors and computers so that the team can drive it manually in actual urban environments for testing and data collection.

VictorTango plans to achieve “full course competence” in preparation for the Urban Challenge by August 2007, Reinholtz said.

The final competition event will take place on Nov. 3, 2007, and will be preceded by several days of qualifying rounds. DARPA will disclose the location sometime in 2007, Whitaker said. The competition will be held in either a real urban setting or on a simulated course “that will be very realistic,” he added.

TORC Technologies LLC, a company in Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center, will work with VictorTango to develop the software for the vehicle’s computer system. TORC was founded and is operated by alumni of the university’s robotics program.

DARPA, which is the research and development arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, is sponsoring the Urban Challenge as a more sophisticated follow-up to the two Grand Challenge competitions, which were held in 2004 and 2005 in the Mojave Desert. Virginia Tech competed in both of those contests, and the university’s two entries placed eighth and ninth in 2005.

“The Urban Challenge will be far more difficult to navigate than the open desert in the Grand Challenge,” Currier said. “In the Grand Challenge, the vehicles followed a GPS ‘bread crumb’ trail and the obstacles they maneuvered around were static. In the Urban Challenge, vehicles must obey the rules of the road and avoid moving traffic.”

Caterpillar, the world’s leading manufacturer of construction and mining equipment, diesel and natural gas engines, and industrial gas turbines, is making a $100,000 grant available to VictorTango for equipment and other expenses.

National Instruments Corp., a leader in virtual instrumentation, has joined Caterpillar and Ford as a corporate partner in support of the Virginia Tech team.

VictorTango and the 10 other track A Urban Challenge teams will compete against 78 track B teams who will receive no funding from DARPA. For more information about the Urban Challenge, visit the Urban Challenge website.

To learn more about the Virginia Tech team, visit the VictorTango website.