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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2004 / 03 

Virginia Tech students gearing up for $1 million Grand Challenge

March 10, 2004

A prize of $1 million, a route of 250 miles between Los Angeles and Las Vegas and no human intervention allowed past the starting line -- that's the Grand Challenge awaiting a team of Virginia Tech students and 24 other competitors on March 13. The challenge posed by the competition's sponsor, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), seems simple -- the winning vehicle will complete a 250-mile designated route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas in less than 10 hours.

The challenge posed by the competition's sponsor, DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), seems simple -- the winning vehicle will complete a 250-mile designated route between Los Angeles and Las Vegas in less than 10 hours.

But the reality of the Grand Challenge is complex and uniquely difficult. Each competing vehicle must be autonomous, which means it must be programmed to navigate and maneuver completely on its own throughout the course, primarily the treacherous terrain of the Mojave Desert.

The Virginia Tech team left Blacksburg on March 5 bound for the California Speedway in Los Angeles. For five days, the 25 Grand Challenge vehicles will undergo qualifying and inspection exercises. On March 13, the qualifiers will attempt to maneuver the 250-mile course. The winning vehicle will complete the course in the shortest time less than 10 hours.

The computers on board each Grand Challenge vehicle will use sensors to interpret terrain and will make all decisions about navigation, route planning and obstacle avoidance. DARPA's goal in staging this event is to accelerate development of autonomous vehicle technologies for use in military activities. The competing teams, which have received no financial support from DARPA, are attempting to perfect technology within a year that the U.S. military has been working on for decades.

"The basic premise of robotics, including autonomous vehicles, is keeping people from having to perform dirty, dull or dangerous jobs -- the 'three Ds,'" said Charles Reinholtz of Blacksburg, Va., Alumni Distinguished Professor of mechanical engineering in Virginia Tech's College of Engineering and lead adviser for the university's Grand Challenge team.

"The technologies employed in developing the vehicles for this competition have far-ranging uses," Reinholtz noted. "For example, unmanned military supply convoys and land mine clearing vehicles are of particular interest to DARPA. Robotic vacuum cleaning, lawn mowing and coal mining are concepts that are catching on in everyday life."

Based on technical proposals submitted in October 2003 by more than 100 original Grand Challenge teams, DARPA narrowed the field to 25 finalists. Virginia Tech is competing with teams from business and industry as well from other engineering schools.

The team of about 30 mechanical engineering and six geography students from Virginia Tech have converted an off-road, four-wheel-drive utility cart donated by Club Car to meet the demands of the Grand Challenge. Propelled by a 20-horsepower Honda GX620 engine, the Virginia Tech vehicle is outfitted with four sensor interface computers, a global mapping computer, a local mapping/path planning computer and a system status/motion control computer.

The team, which won't be shown details of the challenge course until a few hours before the March 13 starting time, has programmed Geographical Information System (GIS) data into the vehicle's computer system. The vehicle also is equipped with radar, laser rangefinders and a thermal imaging camera for sensing the ever-changing environment of the course.

"This has been a great team experience," said Reinholtz, whose co-advisers are professors Alfred Wicks of mechanical engineering and Bill Carstensen of geography. "We've been through a rigorous design process, and we've overcome a large number of problems. The students have had the opportunity to apply some of their engineering and professional skills to a real problem and have gained a lot of practical knowledge along the way."

Virginia Tech engineering students are not novices when it comes to developing autonomous vehicles. Under the direction of Reinholtz, the Virginia Tech Autonomous Vehicle Team has created two or three self-navigating vehicles each year since 1996, winning a number of first places in the international Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition.

For more information about the Virginia Tech Grand Challenge Team, go to:

For more information about the national competition, visit DARPA's Grand Challenge site at

The College of Engineering at Virginia Tech is internationally recognized for its excellence in 14 engineering disciplines and computer science. The college's 5,600 undergraduates benefit from an innovative curriculum that provides a "hands-on, minds-on" approach to engineering education, complementing classroom instruction with two unique design-and-build facilities and a strong Cooperative Education Program. With more than 50 research centers and numerous laboratories, the college offers its 2,000 graduate students opportunities in advanced fields of study such as biomedical engineering, state-of-the-art microelectronics and nanotechnology.

Photo Caption: Several members of the Virginia Tech Grand Challenge at the California Speedway in Los Angeles prepare their vehicle for qualifying and inspection exercises. The team attempted to build a vehicle that could travel 250 miles with no human intervention past the starting line in less than 10 hours.