A Mind of Its Own: NC State-sponsored autonomous car to compete in DARPA race.

November 01, 2007

Sitting in the driver's seat of the blue Lotus Elise, Amit Bhatia '04 MS turns a black, plastic knob at the left edge of the dashboard from park to computer. He lets go of the steering wheel. The car, its engine rumbling, lurches forward and weaves slightly as it finds the global positioning system (GPS) points it will follow at about 15 mph on Centennial Campus.

On the tiny Hewlett-Packard laptop attached to the passenger-side dashboard, the GPS points appear as salmon-colored columns on a gridled street map. Lone Wolf, as the Lotus is known, drives itself using high-tech sensors-five on the front bumper, three on the back-and onboard computer systems.

It's a project of Insight Racing, a robotic vehicle racing team that's a joint venture of NC State and robotics company Insight Technologies. In the last year, more than 50 NC State students have joined alumni and volunteers to get Lone Wolf qualified for the DARPA Urban Challenge, a 60-mile race sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), part of the U.S. Department of Defense. Some NC State students have incorporated their work with the team into their research, and students studying with computer science professor Bob Fornaro helped design some of the software the car uses.

The Urban Challenge's purpose: develop technology to help the armed forces meet a congressional mandate that one-third of all ground-combat vehicles be autonomous by 2015. The first team to finish-or complete the greatest portion of the course-wins $2 million. The final race is Nov. 3.

Fifteen minutes before the race starts, teams will receive a two-gigabyte memory stick with information about the urban route that the car must complete at the site of the former George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif. There will be unexpected roadblocks to navigate. Cars must pass six checkpoints, maintain safe distances from other vehicles and avoid collisions. They can't exceed 30 mph.

Insight has competed in the challenge before. Using a decidedly unsexy 1987 Chevrolet Suburban called Desert Rat, the team finished 12th among 23 finalists in the 2005 race in the Mojave Desert. The car attracted little sponsorship or interest from students, says Walt Sliva, an adjunct engineering professor and Insight Racing's business manager.

Lone Wolf is different. You can tell by the heads that turn as Bhatia, an Ericsson engineer and part-time Ph.D. student, drives the car-festooned with sponsor decals-from the McKimmon Center to Centennial Campus. Insight connected with Lotus at an engineering department seminar about advanced vehicles. The company offered a car. "We initially said no," Sliva says, "because we knew the size of the [Elise] and knew the Urban Challenge would be significantly more complex."

They decided, though, that the car would attract attention from sponsors and students, and they were compelled by the challenge of fitting in its tiny trunk the nine Apple computers that serve as Lone Wolf's brain and the equipment to keep them cool. Squeezing it all in will make it easier to transfer the technology to vehicles of all sizes.

But on this Sunday, it's a low-tech component that helps temporarily solve a nagging problem-keeping cool air from escaping the trunk crammed with computers that can overheat. Shep Pitts '04, '06 MSE, a Ph.D. student in electrical engineering, arrives with four tube socks sewn together. He fills them with rice to create a gasket to seal the space.

Pitts was on the 2005 team and is participating this year for fun. Being part of a project of this scale, he says, is unusual. After all, he asks, "If you're a geek, what's more techie and geeky than this?"

- Amy Eagleburger and Chris Richter

Reprinted from the Fall 2007 issue of NC State magazine, a benefit of membership in the Alumni Association.