NJIT Team Prepares for Robotic Car Race and a Possible $2 Million Prize

Highlander Racing Team prepares for the DARPA Urban Challenge

Military inspectors are coming to interrogate a team of NJIT students – and their robot.

The students built a robotic car that can navigate city streets without a driver. They’ve entered their car -- actually a Chevy Blazer -- in a contest called the DARPA Urban Challenge. If they win the race, which is sponsored by the military, the students will win a $2 million prize.

The team made the contest’s first cut, which was based on a videotape they submitted last month to military officials describing how they automated the Blazer. They are one of 53 teams still in the contest; dozens of teams didn’t make the cut.

Next, the students must get by military inspectors. The inspectors will meet the students -- July 9 -- on a gritty stretch of land in Bayonne. There, the inspectors will watch as the Blazer navigates the Bayonne course. If after putting it through complicated maneuvers the inspectors like the way the Blazer handled the course, they will invite the team to the semi-finals, scheduled for mid-October.

The students have confidence in their robotic Blazer.

“We’ve been plugging away on it all year, and we wouldn’t do that if we didn’t think we’d make the cut,” says Bill Stoddart, an electrical engineering major who is a team leader.

The team of 15 students has been working hard -- putting in 12 hour days in their Faculty Hall lab. Lately, they’ve been fine tuning the software that controls the Blazer’s sophisticated hardware: two vision-object detecting video cameras that photograph the terrain and act as the Blazer’s eyes; and a lazar device, known as LADAR, which maps out and avoids any obstacles in its path.

Some of the nation’s top corporations -- IBM, BAE Systems, GM, Kearfott and L3 Space and Navigation – have helped the team by donating money, equipment and technical support. The team has a website -- NJIT Grand Challenge – that documents their progress on the Blazer. The site includes a video of the Blazer traversing a practice course. The Star-Ledger has also been detailing the team’s progress in a series of stories that includes two videos of the Blazer in action (video1 and video2).

The team’s goal is to pass the July 9 site visit, do well in the October semi-finals and be invited to the final race. Teams invited to the final, scheduled for Nov. 3, will compete in a 60-mile race through a city course somewhere in the western part of the U.S. The military doesn’t disclose the exact location of the course until the day before the race.

David Rodriguez, the team’s captain, was a member of the NJIT team that -- two years ago -- failed the site visit and never made it to the final. But this year, he says, the team is better prepared. In 2005, the team didn’t get some hardware until two weeks before the site visit. The students thus didn’t have proper time to prepare. This year’s team, however, has spent the past year preparing for the contest. And the team is poised for victory.

“We’ve had a lot more time to work on the Blazer and we have more resources this time around,” says Rodriquez, a computer engineering major whose eyes are commonly red with sleeplessness. “We are competing against schools -- Princeton, MIT, Carnegie Mellon -- that have a lot more money than we do. But I predict that we’ll win the race and come back $2 million dollars richer.”

UPDATE (Aug 24, 2007)

The robotic Blazer will be featured on the Discovery Channel. The station will air a series of six shows on robotic cars, and one show will highlight the students’ work on the Blazer. A crew from the Discovery Channel recently spent two days at NJIT, videotaping the Blazer and the students. The show will air sometime in February of 2008.

The NJIT team was one of just 56 to make it to the second round of the DARPA contest. Unfortunately, during the site visit, a faulty hardware chip in the Blazer’s controller caused it to go off course; the team was thus not selected for the finals. But that momentarily lapse has only served to motivate the students.

“We are planning to continue research in the autonomous robotics field,” said team captain Rodriquez. “But since we are no longer in the competition, we will still strive to perfect our vehicle to the DARPA Urban Challenge standards and above.”

Now that the team is not restricted by DARPA rules, the students aim to add more technology to the Blazer and to use the vehicle in other NJIT research projects. The students are also considering commercializing some aspects of the technology they developed for the Blazer.   

“This is not the end for us,” said Rodriquez. “We will be making many presentations of the Blazer at NJIT, to our sponsors, and maybe in other venues. And if there is another DARPA competition next year, we will be sure to enter and pass with flying colors.”

(By Robert Florida, University Web Services)