A car with a mind of its own is not science fiction and University of Rhode Island computer engineering students are proving it. Their autonomous model racecar took first place in a national competition and will represent the United States in the upcoming world championships.
The car, standing about a foot tall, relied on a camera and software programmed by students to zip along a racetrack without human intervention. The car completed the course in 17.7 seconds, faster than 27 other teams at the annual Freescale Cup in Rochester, N.Y. on April 19. The team now heads to South Korea in August to compete against 19 teams from around the globe.
“It’s amazing,” team member Geoffrey Mcelroy, of Lincoln, R.I., said. “I was so excited when we won. I can’t believe I’m going to Korea. It is one of those once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.”
Mcelroy will be joined by teammates Cory Jalbert of Coventry, R.I., and David Cipoletta of Chepachet, R.I. The three were classmates in a senior computer engineering course taught by computer engineering Professor Qing Yang. The professor offered students a choice for grading: take a series of traditional exams or design a robotic car and take one exam. Six students opted for the later, fielding two teams that competed in Rochester.
“This is a good opportunity to inspire students to do real design,” Yang said. “The best way to learn is by doing something.”
The students programmed a 32-bit microprocessor to interface with the camera, motor, battery, wheels and sensors. They added intelligence by creating algorithms that learned from previous mistakes and kept the car on the curving and hilly 100-foot track.
“Even if the track had been constantly changing, the car would have been able to adapt and handle it,” said Jalbert, who served as the team captain.
The students also learned from last year’s team that placed second. They worked long hours to ensure this year’s intelligent car was faster than last year’s car, which clocked in at 19.5 seconds on a test track. When trial runs came in faster, the team pushed for even faster speeds, at one point working more than 16 hours straight to finalize the design.
The teammates will continue to tweak this year’s car ahead of the world championships even as two of them graduate. Fittingly, both are pursuing careers in the automation industry. Jalbert has accepted a software engineering position at Vecna Technologies in Massachusetts with hopes of moving to its competitive robotics division. Cipoletta, currently working part time at Eagle Electric in Rhode Island, is weighing two offers, both from engineering companies involved with automation and machine intelligence. And it’s very possible the students may find themselves designing the next autonomous vehicle.
“This was essentially a kit version of the future car or robot that can drive itself,” Cipoletta said. “We learned a lot.”