IRV team reactions

Video clips [about 1mb each, high-speed connection recommended]

Scott Jones, founder, Indy Robot Racing: Indiana has an opportunity to become a leader in the robotic/autonomous vehicle field.

Scott Jones, founder, Indy Robot Racing: Jones has created a company to take to market the technologies developed in the IRV project.

John Leyden, engineer, Indy Robot Racing: IRV is in it for the long haul.

John Leyden, engineer, Indy Robot Racing: IUPUI played an important role in IRV development.

And the winner is.....

After a bit of minor controversy, it is now official: Stanford University is the winner of this year's DARPA Grand Challenge. Internet access was spotty at the competition site, thus the delay in posting.

Stay tuned, I'll be adding a couple of additional reaction sound bites from Scott Jones.


Finals competition

It's Saturday, and the DARPA Grand Challenge championship is underway in the desert outside Las Vegas, Nevada. The vehicles left the starting gate this morning about 6:40am, in a staggered fashion so as not to create traffic jams, etc. This year's competition is much more successful by any measure than last year, when no team's vehicle managed to go more than a mile or so.

As I write this, three teams are nearing the finish, with the Carnegie Mellon and Standford vehicles battling it out to the end. The CM's Red Team has been the consensus favorite, with the Stanford the sentimental pick. Stanford's entry was added to the qualifying event at the last minute, but has emerged as a powerful competitor.

Every indication is that the hardest part of the course is to come. Called Beer Bottle Pass, it is the most mountainous terrain facing the vehicles, including a thousand-foot drop next to the edge of the canyon. Very tricky stuff. This will be where the competition is won or lost. I'll post with the final results when they are available, and I have Internet access.


Scott Jones talks

Here's what IRV team founder Scott Jones had to say about the DARPA Challenge:
Post Qualification Reaction-Scott Jones
[1MB download - high-speed connection recommended]


Final ceremony

With the Santa Ana winds blowing furiously, DARPA held its closing ceremonies for the DARPA Grand Challenge qualification event. It began rather comically as this highly technical, computer sophisticated event suffered microphone problems on-stage. I guess people who plan these sorts of things still haven’t figured out how to test mics before using them.

Anyway, the obligatory words of congratulations and “you’re all winners here” were expressed, followed by a reading of the 20 – make that 23 teams going to the finals. Apparently 23 of the 43 entrants surpassed DARPA’s competition threshold to qualify, thus three additional teams gained finals spots.

Sadly, IRV was not one of them. Scott Jones estimates the Indy team finished in the high twenties or low thirties among the 43 entrants. It must have been tough standing there as teams and their supporters cheered each call of a finalist’s name. But knowing Scott Jones, he simply took it as a personal challenge to get better and prove wrong any doubters.

Now, it’s on to the finals – as spectators not competitiors. May the best team win.

Reality bytes

Today the teams gathered for closing ceremonies at California Speedway in Fontana/Ontario, site of the qualification events for the DARPA Challenge robotic vehicles race. The Indy Robot Racing team was in good spirits, having accepted its fate of not earning a spot in the finals this Saturday in the Mojave Desert. Team founder Scott Jones indicated that “everything (bad) that happened to our vehicle was within our power to prevent” – an honorable philosophy given the fact that external forces did in fact play a part in the team’s misfortune.

Nonetheless, Jones and other team leaders deemed the experience a success, vowing to come back again better and stronger. If no team wins this year’s finals event, the DARPA prize will be doubled to $4 million, and will be held in the spring of 2007. In the meantime, Jones is moving forward with plans to commercialize the technologies developed for the autonomous vehicle dubbed IRV – Indy Robot Vehicle.

As for our coverage, we will remain in California with the team and attend the championship event. Observers are skeptical that any of the 20 qualifying teams can complete the 175-mile desert terrain course in the required ten hours or less. Jones intends to closely observe the finals competition, and most certainly will gain new insights in the development of autonomous vehicle technology.

“Indiana will be at the forefront of re-inventing the automobile industry because of our work with the IRV and its related technologies. We are well positioned to influence the direction of robotic vehicles as a means of public transportation,” says Jones.

Predicted uses for such vehicles include municipal snow removal, agriculture, hazardous waste handing and movement, and medical applications. Jones has formed an LLC to take to market the proprietary technologies developed by the IRV team. And while the team was in the DARPA Challenge to win, its primary goal was to advance these IRV technologies.

Jones is already strategizing how to move forward, including the distinct possibility that Indiana will host one or more similar robotic vehicle events in the near future. And, Jones has made clear the important role that was played by Indiana University in this effort. He is enthusiastic about working with the IU School of Informatics and other IU schools and programs to reach his goals. You can be sure that IU – one of the nation’s outstanding research institutions – is ready for the challenge.

[photo courtesy: Steven Wallace/Indiana University]

Last gasp

After a valiant effort the Indy Robot Racing Team was unsuccessful in reaching the finals of the DARPA Grand Challenge autonomous vehicle event. Late this afternoon, the IRV made what turned out to be its final qualification attempt. And, as so often happens at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, this 11th-hour attempt to make the field came up short.

After a strong start in today's qualification attempt, the IRV encountered problems with its Global Position Satellite system and stopped for an extended period of time on the course. We were later to learn that the vehicle "thought" that it was a mile away from its actual location, causing a "this does not compute" situation. The irony here is that this latest problem was relatively minor, yet turned out to be the show-stopper unlike far more sophistocated visioning and guidance challenges mastered by the team.

Earlier in the day the team made several practice runs, and undertook minor adjustments to the vehicle. With all the marbles riding on this afternoon's qualifying run, the team was under serious pressure to figure out why the IRV's guidance system was consistently pulling to the left. Said another way, the vehicle was performing like your personal car does when its tires are out of alignment.

Why was the IRV pulling to the left? After much analysis it was determined that a crash on the team's first day of qualifications caused an avalanche of subsequent problems.

During a routine and mandatory DARPA safety inspection, the IRV unexpectedly lurched forward, smashing into a nearby concrete barrier. The front undercarriage and bumper were bent slightly causing a misalignment of the vehicle's various guidance systems. But, the misalignment was just enough to cause the steering problems. Furthermore, as the IRV lurched, DARPA officials failed to push the emergency "kill" button. Had they done so, this might have saved the vehicle from its rude encounter with the concrete.

But why did this happen? Ultimately it was determined that the navigational computer file given to the team by DARPA for its safety inspection contained a fatal flaw. The file name included spaces, not uncommon in the Windows environment. However, a few of the IRV's onboard computers use the Linux operation system which only reads file names WITHOUT spaces. Once the program was loaded, the vehicle's Linux computers reverted back to the last properly formatted code in their memory - in this case, a run command - that contained no spaces in the file name, from a test conducted in the desert several days earlier.

The IRV did what the computers told it to do: accelerate forward rapidly. Only this time the vehicle was just a few feet from a concrete wall, and not in the desert. Crunch! DARPA has since changed its procedures, and won't issue any programs with spaces in file names. But the damage was done to the IRV, and things went downhill rapidly after that.

At tonight's team dinner, Jones took a philosophical approach, saying that while it would have been nice to have made the finals - and nicer still to have won the event - the real accomplishments were the team's tremendous technical advances in recent weeks in preparation for the DARPA Challenge. Jones is convinced that technologies developed for the IRV project will transfer to an emerging robotics industry destined to play a huge role in the creation of tomorrow's automobiles. And, he says Indiana is well-positioned to take advantage of this technology.

So now what? Jones and his team are planning to attend the finals in Primm, Nevada this Saturday. Our plan is to be there too. Stay tuned :-)

[photo courtesy: Steven Wallace/Indiana University]


Do or die time

The Indy Robot Racing team continues its frustrating search for a couple of software glitches that are causing major headaches. In the words of one engineer, "We still haven't found a smoking gun," referring to the cyber culprit. Nonetheless, the team has made several adjustments to the vehicle in preparation for their qualifying run that begins about an hour from now.

Simply put, this run is huge. If the IRV doesn't complete the course, it is highly unlikely they'll qualify for the finals competition in the Mojave Desert. Team founder Scott Jones notes however that the primary goal is not to win the competition (although their competitive spirit is undeniable.) Rather, Jones - a graduate of Indiana University - is more interested in the long-term development of robotics as an Indiana industry. Win or lose he says that Indiana will benefit greatly from the team's research.

This afternoon, we interviewed several members of the team, three with connections to Indiana University. We're looking forward to showcasing these IU ambassadors and telling the story of IRV. In the meantime, our fingers - and toes are crossed that this afternoon's run is a winner.

[photo courtesy: Steven Wallace/Indiana University]


Practice, practice, practice

At this hour, the IRV team is running the Indy Robot vehicle through a series of test runs in preparation for tomorrow's next qualification attempt. Hopes are running high that the vehicle will perform up to its capabilities and complete the course for the first time.

As I write this a couple teams chatting nearby say they've been told that their teams are already in the finals. Apparently those vehicles with several solid runs have been advanced to the final competition. Hopefully the IRV team will get similar news tomorrow or Wednesday. Frankly, it's down to the wire now and the IRV must perform extremely well to advance. Here's hoping that's just what happens :0)

[photo courtesy: Steven Wallace/Indiana University]

Frustrating day

The Indy Robot Racing team was busy today working out last-minute glitches to the vehicle's navigation systems. During its official qualification run this afternoon (one of several that each team has) the vehicle performed beautifully, until trouble cropped up in the enclosed tunnel area.

While in the tunnel, the autonomous vehicles must demonstrate the ability to navigate without the benefit of GPS (Global Positioning Satellite system). For some reason the IRV bogged down in the tunnel, scraping the wall before being pulled from the run. The engineering team spent the remainder of the afternoon tracking down the technical gremlin.

Late this afternoon the IRV was back at it, running through its paces in the area set aside for teams to practice. Another qualification run is scheduled for tomorrow. Stay tuned, the march to the finals is coming down to its final two days.

[photo courtesy: Steven Wallace/Indiana University]

Welcome to the Hotel California

Don Huckleberry and I arrived in Ontario, California, about 6:30pm local time – after a 3-hour drive from the Las Vegas airport. The flights were uneventful (the best kind :0), as was the drive through the desert. One immediate observation: we're not in Indiana anymore. I told Don, "get used to the color brown - we're going to be seeing a lot of it." And so it goes.

Don is a faculty member with the IU School of Informatics@IUPUI. His area of expertise is video production and he will be responsible for shooting all video of the Indy Robot Racing Vehicle throughout the competition. My job is producer, reporter and writer. We will be talking with members of the IRV team, notably those who are students or faculty at Indiana University.

The IRV team has been participating in the national qualifying event since last Wednesday, with three more days of required activities. This Thursday, 20 teams will learn they have qualified for the national competition to be held in the Mojave Desert outside Primm, Nevada, Saturday, October 8. A $2 million prize is on the line for the autonomously operated vehicle that successfully navigates a 175-mile desert terrain course in 10 hours or less.

The Indy team is considered one of the stronger entries, and we are confident they’ll be in the finals. We’re looking forward to documenting their progress, and to extending the reach of Indiana University, one of the nation’s premier research institutions. Check back here for periodic updates. Right now, it’s time for breakfast!


The planning is underway

Today we had a meeting to determine what gear we would be taking with us to the DARPA Challenge. Don and I agree that we want to keep the amount of gear to a minimum, given the conditions we’ll be working in. The biggest unresolved issue is delivery of our airline tickets. If they don’t arrive Friday we have a BIG problem. How far is the drive?