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Virginia Tech team takes third place $500,000 prize in DARPA Urban Challenge


BLACKSBURG, Va., Nov. 6, 2007 – VictorTango, a team of Virginia Tech engineering and geography students, has won third place and a $500,000 cash prize in the Urban Challenge autonomous vehicle competition.

On Saturday, Nov. 3, during the competition held on a former U.S. Air Force base in Victorville, Calif., the Virginia Tech autonomous vehicle, Odin, completed the 60-mile course—with no human intervention allowed past the starting line—in under six hours.

Odin crossed the finish line just behind the entry from Carnegie Mellon University (Tartan Racing), which won first place and $2 million; and the vehicle from Stanford University (Stanford Racing), which came in second for a $1 million prize.

During Urban Challenge qualifying rounds that began in Victorville on Oct. 27, Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) narrowed an original field of 35 entries down to 11 finalists. On Nov. 3, the final event vehicles were required to operate entirely autonomously, without human intervention, as they obeyed California traffic laws and performed maneuvers such as merging into moving traffic, navigating traffic circles, and avoiding obstacles.

The vehicles had to think like human drivers and continually make split-second decisions to avoid moving vehicles, and safely pass through intersections.

"The urban setting added considerable complexity to the conditions faced by the vehicles, and was significantly more difficult than the fixed desert courses featured in the first two Grand Challenges," said Norman Whitaker, Urban Challenge program manager. "Tartan Racing, Stanford Racing, and VictorTango all did a great job getting their vehicles to navigate the course quickly and safely despite the challenging conditions."

Only six of the 11 finalists finished the course. The other three were from Cornell University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and a collaborative team from the University of Pennsylvania and Lehigh University.

VictorTango converted an Escape hybrid SUV donated by Ford Motor Co. into an autonomous vehicle by outfitting it with a drive-by-wire system, a powerful computer system, laser scanners, cameras, and a global positioning system (GPS), said Patrick Currier, a mechanical engineering graduate student.

"The drive-by-wire system allows the computers to control the throttle, brake, steering, and shifting and to drive the vehicle," Currier said. "This system was custom developed by the team and is unique in that it is completely hidden from view, enabling Odin to retain full passenger capabilities."

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

VictorTango and TORC developed Odin’s sophisticated navigational software, which is modeled on human behavior. "To successfully navigate in an urban environment, Odin processes all of the sensor information, classifies the situation, and then chooses a behavior, such as passing another vehicle, staying in the lane, or parking," Currier said.

Currier is one of 10 graduate students on the Virginia Tech team, which also has included as many as 50 undergraduates. The students were guided by four faculty advisers, three of them from Virginia Tech—professor Alfred Wicks and assistant professor Dennis Hong of the College of Engineering’s mechanical engineering department, and professor Bill Carstensen, chair of the geography department in the College of Natural Resources. The team’s founding adviser, Charles Reinholtz, a former Virginia Tech Alumni Distinguished Professor and now a department head at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida, continued to work with VictorTango throughout the Urban Challenge.