Aug. 1, 2007 -- On the final day of a University of Virginia Engineering School-sponsored, robotics-themed camp for middle schoolers on July 27, the students capped off a week of building robotic cars from Lego kits by racing them through an obstacle courses set up in the courtyard of Thornton Hall.
But before they tested their own cars, the students got to see and investigate a full-sized, self-driving robotic car — dubbed "Tommy Jr." —that is part of an effort to develop unmanned ground vehicles for the Pentagon.
The car appeared courtesy of "Team Jefferson," a group that includes several U.Va. engineering undergraduate students and faculty members working alongside practicing engineers and inventors under the leadership of U.Va. alumnus Paul Perrone and his company, Perrone Robotics, based in Crozet. Sponsored in part by the School of Engineering and Applied Science, they have transformed a Scion xB compact car into a self-driving robotic car that may end up playing a major role in an autonomous method of transportation.
To do so, the tiny car will need to outlast and outperform more than 30 other robotic vehicles, many built with budgets a hundred times larger than Team Jefferson's, that are competing for a $2 million top prize in the 2007 Grand Challenge competition sponsored by the federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The team behind Tommy Jr. enters this year's competition — the world's only driver-less car race — building upon its highly successful entry in the 2005 Grand Challenge, which required teams to create self-driving vehicles that could traverse 132 miles across the Mojave Desert in Nevada. Team Jefferson’s entry — a silver egg-shaped dune buggy named “Tommy,” built on a very small budget — finished among the top 10 in the 40-car field, which was itself chosen from 195 applicants.
This year's competition involves a much different challenge. Each car must autonomously traverse 60 miles of challenging urban traffic conditions, demonstrating maneuvers such as stopping at an intersection, merging with traffic, parallel parking, avoiding debris or obstacles in the road, and obeying traffic laws like right-of-way, all while avoiding collisions with the other cars traveling on the course (including one built from a giant industrial dump truck that, with even a slight bump, could incapacitate Tommy Jr.)
To do all that, Tommy Jr. relies on advanced software from Perrone that amalgamates several data streams supplied by the car's military-grade Global Positioning System, four laser range finders and a radar, so that the car can "see" up to 250 feet in all directions with precision of up to half an inch. This navigational system enables Tommy Jr. to recognize road lanes, intersections and obstacles like construction cones and other vehicles; the Perrone software dictates how to respond to the myriad possible conditions.
Team Jefferson will learn Aug. 10 whether it has made it through the regional qualifying stage to the national competition, which will involve national qualifying events held at the end of October that will culminate in a final race on Nov. 3, all held in a not-yet-disclosed location.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research and development wing of the Department of Defense, sponsors the Challenge as part of the Pentagon's effort to comply with a congressional mandate requiring one-third of military ground vehicles to be unmanned by 2015.
While Tommy Jr.'s impact on the Grand Challenge remains to be seen, the car made an exciting impact on the middle schoolers attending U.Va. Engineering School's Systems Robotics Design Camp. All week (July 23-27) the campers used Lego Mindstorms robotics kits to build autonomous, toy-sized vehicles that could overcome the same types of challenges that Tommy Jr. will face — by programming them to follow lines, stop at intersections and avoid obstacles.
Friday's Tommy Jr. appearance, along with a race among the student-built robotic vehicles, culminated the weeklong camp that aims to get children excited about engineering. It seemed to be working, as several of the students swarmed Tommy Jr., climbing into the seats and inspecting and touching the exotic instruments and equipment onboard.
"I think it's pretty cool," said 12-year-old Nell Ackerman of Charlottesville.
"We watched a movie about cars like these, but I didn't think I'd actually get to see one," she continued. "I think it's really amazing how the wheel actually turns while it goes, because it's like a ghost is driving it."
Ten-year old Daniel Johnson from Fredericksburg had said he wasn't interested in a robotics camp when his father suggested it. But by Friday he was asking for a home robotics kit, said his father, James Johnson.
James Johnson attested to the importance of having firsthand experience to help children choose their pursuits in life. "So many times now, children are making decisions based on what's popular and what they've been told about — not based on having experienced any of it," he said. "My brother-in-law and I both work hard to get our children exposed to different things."
Engineering is intrinsically hard to envision without experiencing it, said John Elliott, visiting on behalf of Lockheed Martin, one of the camp's sponsors.
Fortunately, "engineering is a broad field," said George Cahen, professor of materials science and engineering and faculty adviser to the students on Team Jefferson. "There are so many things that engineers do that are exciting and exciting for young people to see."
Just as building robots gave the kids a sense of what engineering is and how it feels, seeing Tommy Jr. gave them a concrete (or steel, in this case) example of what engineering can accomplish.