The DARPA Grand Challenge is a competition for driverless cars, sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the most prominent research organisation of the United States Department of Defense.
|Research and development can be fun. Oduetse Matsebe tries out the Bugg|
|Hard at work to get the Baja Bugg operational are Molaletsa Namoshe, Thegeran Naidoo and Piet Terblanche|
DARPA¿s mission is to sponsor revolutionary research that bridges the gap between fundamental discoveries and their use for national security. DARPA has the technologies needed to create the first fully autonomous (driverless and without remote control) ground vehicle capable of completing a substantial off-road courses within a limited time.
The first DARPA Grand Challenge event was held in March 2004 and featured a 228-kilometre desert course. Fifteen autonomous ground vehicles attempted the course and none finished. In the 2005 Grand Challenge, four autonomous vehicles successfully completed a 212-kilometre desert route under the required 10-hour limit, and DARPA awarded a $2 million prize to 'Stanley' from Stanford University.
The CSIR and UKZN's joint plan aims to automate two mini Baja Bugs for the 2010 DARPA challenge. UKZN has donated one of two Baja Bugs for the collaborative research. Simultaneous research and collaboration will be carried out on the vehicles. The team will equip the vehicle with various sensors and positioning systems to determine all the characteristics of its environment to enable it to carry out the task it has been assigned.
The main aim of the project is to generate visibility for both partners to attract of top students and researchers/engineers in this scarce skills environment.
According to Riaan Coetzee, manager of the mechatronics and micro-manufacturing research area, teamwork and complementing of skills are of cardinal importance for projects. "This project is the ideal vehicle to expose younger engineers to collaboration with peers in different disciplines. At the same time it creates the opportunity for natural and productive mentoring."
CSIR researchers will focus on generating adequate awareness of the environment for the Baja Bugs by 'assembling' the partial environments acquired by a variety of sensors.
These are obviously only the first steps towards autonomy, since Baja Bugs will then still have to decide how to react to this environment. "We do not even known at this stage what format the DARPA challenge will have next time", says Coetzee, "but it is an exciting opportunity and challenge for the team. It proves that research and development can be fun."
UKZN's main focus will be to optimise GPS strategies for accurate calculation of the Baja Bugs' location. The university has an established programme for final-year students to semi-automate a buggy. This will be expanded through involvement in the project.
UKZN can use this practical project for final year and post-graduate students, while the mechatronics and micro-manufacturing research group further develops skills in autonomous platforms.
The first focus of the group will be to get the vehicle operational. From there the project will focus on analysis of the data before various sensors and actuators are installed. The design and implementation of software to control the buggy autonomously will then be added. The latter is the most complex area and poses a major challenge.
Coetzee adds, "The success of the project does not lie with winning the DARPA challenge. We want to attract and develop human and other resources through offering this exciting project."