Members of the “Lone Wolf” racing team were howling in delight, and “Sting 1” members were buzzing Thursday, and with good reason.
Insight Racing from Cary, which has named its car Lone Wolf, and Sting Racing from Atlanta, with its Sting 1, are among 36 semifinalists picked for the “Urban Challenge” by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.
The challenge is set for Nov. 3 at the former George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif.
Insight, which includes students from North Carolina State University, and Sting, which includes Georgia Tech students, have designed autonomous controlled vehicles for the DARPA competition.
The semifinalists will compete in a qualification event from Oct. 26-31. The top 20 teams will make the finals.
DARPA is offering prizes worth $2 million for the winner, $1 million for second place and $500,000 for third.
The Urban Challenge is part of DARPA’s efforts to develop technology that can be used in autonomous vehicles for the U.S. military. DARPA is the high-tech research arm of the Pentagon. Semi-finalists were picked after sight visits by DARPA. More than 50 teams entered the competition.
Making the cut was big news for both teams.
“We’re really excited about it,” said an obviously thrilled Walt Sliva, business manager for Insight Racing and an adjunct lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at NCSU. “I am really high.”
Insight has built an autonomously controlled vehicle using a Lotus Elise sports car. At a Virginia race track recently, the team pushed the Elise to nearly 50 mph.
Insight will concentrate on additional requirements for the next stage, Sliva said. Among those is making sure laser range-finders in the rear of the Lone Wolf allow proper distances when passing vehicles and re-entering the highway ahead of that traffic.
“We will be making some software adjustments,” he said. “Most of our stuff has been concentrated on what is in front of us. We now will be looking behind us also.”
All-round awareness is one of the challenges the urban environment will present.
The Sting team, which has received technical advice and support from Duke University, is working with a Porsche Cayenne.
The Insight team has been through DARPA competition before, but, the Georgia Tech team has not.
"As a first-year competitor in the Urban Challenge, qualifying for the semi-final round is a major accomplishment and testament to the passion and dedication of our team," said Henrik Christensen, who is chair of robotics for the College of Computing at Georgia Tech. He’s also the principal investigator for Sting Racing.
"Our robotics program at Georgia Tech is relatively new, but the progress we have shown over a short period of time has positioned us among the best in the nation,” Christensen said in a statement.
Unlike a cross-country event two years ago in which the Insight team took part, the urban event is designed to simulate a city environment where U.S. armed forces are likely to be involved in combat.
“The robotic vehicles will conduct simulated military supply missions at the site,” said Tony Teather, DARPA’s director, in announcing the semifinalists and the location of the competition at a DARPA convention in California.
“This adds many of the elements these vehicles would face in operational environments,” he added.
The U.S. Army already uses Victorville for urban training.
In testimony to Congress in March, Teather explained some of the rationale for the vehicle competition.
"It was an important step to have autonomous ground vehicles that can navigate and drive across open and difficult terrain from city to city,” he said. “But the next big leap will be an autonomous vehicle that can navigate and operate in traffic, a far more complex challenge for a ‘robotic’ driver. So this November we are very excited to be moving from the desert to the city with our Urban Challenge."