Robotic car drives U to competition

By By Rochelle McConkie

By Rochelle McConkie

To U engineering students, it’s known as “Red Rover.” There’s something different about their Dodge Caravan — it drives itself.

A core of about 15 students is taking this autonomous car to the semifinals of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Urban Challenge next Friday in Victorville, Calif., to compete against top schools nationwide for a coveted $2 million prize.

DARPA, a Department of Defense agency, hosts the challenge as part of its research on self-driving vehicles. The goal of the research is to develop vehicles that can be used on the battlefields instead of putting soldiers in harm’s way.

Students test-drove the vehicle Oct. 5 with Gov. Jon Huntsman.

Huntsman sat in the back seat while the car slowly drove itself through the parking lot of the Merrill Engineering Building, following a course programmed into a computer inside the car.

Andy Hetrick, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, sat in the driver’s seat as a precaution, but the car drove by “voodoo magic,” he said.

To start the engine, Hetrick touched a computer screen, and the car moved along the planned course with the help of four computers, cameras, laser scanners, a GPS system and sensors wired throughout the car.

The test drive was in preparation for the DARPA race later this month, when the car will participate in a six-hour race in a mock city environment. During the race, cars will have to complete “simulated military supply missions” while traveling a set course, avoiding obstacles, making it through busy intersections, navigating traffic circles and merging into traffic.

The only signal teammates are able to give the car is a stop signal. The rest of the actions are pre-programmed into computers. Cars are expected to complete the course as quickly and as precisely as possible.

The U is one of 35 teams to compete in the semifinals in hopes of being one of 20 teams to move on to the finals on Nov. 3.

The team has been working on the car since March and has spent about $100,000. The Center for Autonomous Vehicle Applied Technology and Information donated the Dodge Caravan, and Kairos Autonomi donated the autonomous system.

Thomas Grover, a spokesman for Kairos Autonomi, said the company wanted to help the U because it wants to help spur autonomous vehicle growth.

“We want to establish the state as a center for autonomous vehicle technology,” Grover said.

Mark Minor, adviser to the project, said his team has done remarkably well on a “shoestring budget,” comparing with other teams who spent $1 to 2 million on their cars.

The state of Utah has the second largest number of teams competing in the race, with three teams comprised of students from the U, Utah State University and Brigham Young University.

This is the first time the U has participated in the race. Regardless of how they do, students are excited to compete.

“The excitement of robotics is to see the machine do something just as you expected,” said Zhe Leng, a doctorate student in robotics.

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A group of 15 engineering students worked on the “Red Rover,” a Dodge Caravan that drives itself. The students will compete against other school sin the nation next Friday for a $2 million prize in the DARPA Challenge in Victorville, Calif.