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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2005 / 10 

Virginia Tech's Cliff and Rocky selected for Grand Challenge starting line

October 9, 2005

Virginia Tech’s “Cliff” and “Rocky” were among an elite group of 23 autonomous vehicles that revved their engines on Oct. 8 at the starting line of the $2 million DARPA Grand Challenge race through the Mojave Desert.

The Virginia Tech Grand Challenge team — most of them undergraduate engineering students — found out Wednesday at the California Speedway in Fontana that both their autonomous vehicles proved themselves worthy during the past week-and-a-half of final qualifying at the Speedway.

On Tuesday, Grand Challenge sponsor DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Pentagon’s research arm) announced that Rocky was one of 10 vehicles slated for the starting line. At that time, Charles Reinholtz, co-adviser of the Virginia Tech team and Alumni Distinguished Professor of mechanical engineering (ME), wasn’t so sure that Cliff would make it into the final 23.

“In what must surely be one of the greatest comebacks in autonomous vehicle racing history, Cliff vaulted his way into the finals with a late surge of impressive autonomy,” Reinholtz said on Wednesday.

“Virginia Tech would all be proud of the way our students performed under a great deal of pressure and more than a little adversity,” Reinholtz said. “More important than making the finals, I believe the students conducted themselves as dedicated professionals throughout the week.”

The Grand Challenge race began near Primm, Nev., in the early hours of Saturday. The Mojave Desert course included “lakebeds, narrow desert roads, tight turns, tunnels, gateways and treacherous mountain passes,” according to a release from the competition’s sponsor, DARPA.

The team whose vehicle could complete the 150 mile course in the Mojave Desert the fastest within a ten-hour time period — with no human intervention allowed past the starting line — would win the $2 million prize.

The Virginia Tech team and their advisers, Reinholtz, mechanical engineering professor Alfred Wicks and mechanical engineering graduate student Brett Leady, have devoted much of the past year-and-a-half to the research and development necessary for converting two off-road, four-wheel-drive utility vehicles donated by Club Car into vehicles that can navigate and maneuver around obstacles and over rough terrain with no human intervention.

Virginia Tech and Carnegie Mellon University are the only competitors that each developed two vehicles selected to go to the starting line. The other 19 vehicles that qualified for the race were developed by teams from universities, racing and technology companies, corporations and engineering firms.

DARPA offered a prize of $1 million for the first Grand Challenge, held in March 2004. Cliff, the 2004 Virginia Tech entry, was one of only 15 out of an original field of 106 to qualify for the final starting line cut last year. No vehicle traveled farther than about seven miles during last year’s competition.

The revamped Cliff and his counterpart Rocky are equipped with on-board computers that communicate with advanced sensing technology, including Global Positioning Systems (GPS), Geographical Information System data, radar, laser rangefinders and thermal imaging cameras. The team have programmed the vehicles to interpret terrain and make all decisions about navigation, route planning and obstacle avoidance.

DARPA’s goal in sponsoring a second competition and increasing the prize to $2 million is to continue to encourage university and industry engineering teams to help develop unmanned vehicles that the military can deploy in dangerous situations. The competing teams have received no financial support from DARPA.

For more information about the Virginia Tech team and vehicles, visit their web site at