Wednesday, July 27, 2005
OU sets its sights on 2006 DARPA Grand Challenge
By Dawn Pauli, OU Writer
Thanks to a generous donation by Ford Motor Company, Oakland University now has the wheels to begin its quest to capture the 2006 DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) Grand Challenge.
Ford recently provided Oakland an experimental drive-by-wire vehicle, controlled by a joystick rather than the traditional steering wheel and pedals. The car will be used as a base for an Oakland team to create an entry for the Grand Challenge.
The goal is to develop an unmanned vehicle that can traverse 175 miles over desert terrain in the fastest time under 10 hours. Competitors include corporations and universities, and the winner will receive a $2 million cash prize.
“This is a generous donation that shows Ford believes the team and Oakland are capable,” said Ka C. Cheok, professor of engineering and project leader. “For the Grand Challenge, the car will automatically be steered by computer controls that incorporate intelligent decisions from smart sensing and path planning. The challenge is the systems integration of computer vision, GPS, radar and other novel situation awareness sensors to avoid obstacles such as rocks, trees, ditches, etc., as the unmanned vehicle makes its way to the destination.”
Competing in the challenge typically costs companies $5 to $6 million including salaries of full-time engineers, Cheok estimates. By relying on students and in-kind donations of engineering staff, Oakland will compete for a fraction of the cost.
“We’ll need a multidisciplinary team of students plus experienced electrical engineers, computer scientists, and mechanical and systems engineers,” Cheok said.
The team is already starting to take shape. Ford has committed to loan two engineers to the project. Cheok has asked OU alumnus Paul Angott, BSEE ’70, president of Self Guided Systems (SGS) to lend expertise from his company and engineering team.
Cheok will hand-pick undergraduate and graduate students, who will get the opportunity to earn a scholarship and learn about autonomous vehicle technology through hands-on exploration.
Fund raising for the June 2006 Grand Challenge is under way. The team is soliciting sponsorships, in-kind sponsorships, volunteers and equipment loans and donations.
A strong history in unmanned vehicles
Oakland’s a contender for the Grand Challenge because of its strong background in unmanned vehicle projects.
The university, along with the U.S. Army, founded the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition (IGVC) in 1993. Since then, the competition has grown and includes new sponsors such as Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, DARPA, U.S. Army TACOM, U.S. Department of Transportation, United Defense, SAE, Theta Tau Professional Engineering Fraternity, FANUC Robotics, Motorola, General Motors and General Dynamics Land Systems.
The competition is limited to engineering students and challenges them to design autonomous vehicles to compete in a variety of unmanned mobility competitions. Oakland co-hosts the competition every year, and many IGVC events are held on campus.
“The officers at DARPA were looking at how the IGVC was promoting autonomous vehicle technology at the college level. They realized that students had low budgets and less time, and that students graduate and skill sets change every year,” Cheok said. “They created the Grand Challenge and opened it up to companies with larger budgets, as well as universities. They are challenging the companies and universities to produce better, faster unmanned vehicles.”
Oakland also is involved in another unmanned vehicle project that has far-reaching commercial opportunities.
Angott, founder of SGS, asked Oakland to provide the research and development for an automatic lawnmower that could cut lawns within an inch of accuracy, mowing around flowerbeds or other objects.
“A team from Oakland and others in the industry, spent three years producing the prototype with precision navigation,” Cheok said. “And now 25 SGS engineers and technicians are taking the lawnmower into production.”
The company is initially marketing the lawnmower to commercial customers, such as golf courses or office complexes. Lawn care service providers will ensure safe and successful operations of these new robotic mowers.
“During this time, the public will have a chance to appreciate the automatic lawnmower. Meanwhile, we’re designing a smaller version that we can offer for a few hundred dollars a few years later,” Cheok said, adding that the IGVC and the automatic lawnmower projects provided Oakland the experience to tackle the Grand Challenge.
“A golf course may be one to two kilometers in size, while the Grand Challenge is over 250 kilometers,” Cheok said. “The Grand Challenge can be likened to the self-guided lawnmower task on a larger scale.”