My Other Car is a Robot

Penn Engineering’s “Little Ben,” the autonomous vehicle built by Penn Engineering students and faculty, is able to drive itself.

In the last DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) “Urban Challenge,” Little Ben was one of only six entrants out of 89 to qualify to compete.  It was an amazing feat for Ben Franklin Racing Team, a consortium led by Daniel Lee, a charismatic associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Systems Engineering, with partners Lehigh University and Lockheed Martin Advanced Technology Laboratories. In spite of its very meager funding and lacking equipment, training facilities, and at one point, a vehicle, the team advanced to compete in the finals against incredible odds. “We were in the company of some of the best roboticists in the world, and that is a great testament to the dedication, quality, and passion of Penn and Lehigh students,” declared Dan Lee.

The Grand Challenge Finals were held at the 5,347-acre George Air Force Base near Victorville, CA. Competing cars were required to safely navigate a 60-mile urban course in less than six hours, obeying traffic laws while merging into moving traffic, negotiating intersections, and avoiding obstacles without human intervention. The Penn team devoted countless hours—and wrote miles of computer code—to make Little Ben, a modified 2006 Toyota Prius, drive, merge, and park itself.

“We were competing against schools that have longer traditions of entering these kinds of contests, bigger teams, with millions of dollars in funding,” says Lee. “Our chances of going all the way were the same chance of Penn basketball making it to the Final Four. We were hoping to be competitive by using our brains and ingenuity.”

The DARPA Challenge was developed in response to a congressional mandate that by 2015, one-third of U.S. ground combat vehicles should be unmanned.  For this, planners upped the ante, requiring the cars to manage life in the big city. And they had to feel their way around using lasers, cameras, and sensors—no remote control, and no involvement from team members (unless you include the “emergency stop system”—a competition requirement).

“Today, all of the high-end cars have features like adaptive cruise control, or parking assistance. It’s getting more and more automated,” Lee told The Pennsylvania Gazette. “Now, to do it fully, the car has to have a complete awareness of the surrounding world. These are the hard problems of robotics: computer vision, having computers ‘hear’ sounds, having computers understand what’s happening in the world around them. This is a good environment to test these things.”

Credit: Penn Engineering Magazine, “My Other Car is a Robot,” by George Beschen.

Interested? Learn more!

GRASP Lab Research at Penn Engineering
DARPA Urban Challenge

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