SA works on driverless Baja Bugs

25 August 2008

South Africa’s Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) is partnering with the University of KwaZulu-Natal to automate two mini Baja Bugs to compete in the 2010 DARPA Grand Challenge, a driverless car race held in the USA.

In a statement last month, the CSIR said that it would work with members from the university to equip the two vehicles with various sensors and positioning systems that will enable the vehicle to determine the characteristics of its environment and carry out the tasks it has been assigned.

The DARPA Grand Challenge is a competition for driverless cars, sponsored by the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), which supports research that “bridges the gap between fundamental discoveries and their use for national security”.

Mentoring and collaboration

According to CSIR mechatronics and micro-manufacturing research manager Riaan Coetzee, teamwork and complementing of skills will be crucial for the successful completion of the projects.

“This project is the ideal vehicle to expose younger engineers to collaboration with peers in different disciplines,” he said. “At the same time, it creates the opportunity for natural and productive mentoring.”

CSIR researchers will focus on generating adequate awareness of the environment for the Baja Bugs by assembling the partial environments acquired by a variety of sensors. However, these are only the first steps towards autonomy, since the Baja Bugs will then still have to decide how to react to the environment.

“We do not even known at this stage what format the DARPA challenge will have next time, but it is an exciting opportunity and challenge for the team,” said Coetzee. “It proves that research and development can be fun.”

Developing skills

The University of KwaZulu-Natal’s main focus will be to optimise GPS (global positioning system) strategies for accurate calculation of the Baja Bugs’ location.

The university currently has an established programme for final-year students to semi-automate a buggy. The programme will be expanded through involvement in the project.

The university can use this practical project for final year and postgraduate students, while the CSIR’s mechatronics and micro-manufacturing research group can further develop their skills in developing autonomous platforms.

The first focus of the group will be to get the vehicle operational, after which the project will focus on analysis of the data before various sensors and actuators are installed.

The design and implementation of software to control the buggy autonomously will then be added, the latter of which is the most complex area and poses a major challenge.

“The success of the project does not lie with winning the DARPA challenge,” said Coetzee. “We want to attract and develop human and other resources through offering this exciting project.”

The first DARPA Grand Challenge event was held in March 2004 and featured a 228-kilometre desert course. Fifteen autonomous ground vehicles attempted the course; none finished.

In the 2005 Grand Challenge, four autonomous vehicles successfully completed a 212-kilometre desert route under the required 10-hour limit, and DARPA awarded a US$2-million prize to “Stanley” from Stanford University.

SAinfo reporter

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