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July†16, 2008

Vol. 108, No. 16


Winning debut for team’s robot

By Brett Tomlinson
Published in the July†16, 2008, issue

From left, Andrew Saxe ’08, Derrick Yu ’10, and Gordon Franken ’08 set up Kratos for a practice run in Princeton.
Frank Wojciechowski
From left, Andrew Saxe ’08, Derrick Yu ’10, and Gordon Franken ’08 set up Kratos for a practice run in Princeton.

The Princeton Autonomous Vehicle Engineering team does not mind being an underdog. Since 2004, the group of undergraduates, better known by the acronym PAVE, has built self-driving trucks for high-tech competitions sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), competing against teams of professors, postdocs, and graduate students and performing well, despite having a limited budget and relatively little experience.

But this spring, nine students from PAVE decided to try what team member Gordon Franken ’08 called “a more approachable challenge.” They entered the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition, a robotics contest for undergraduates held in Rochester, Mich., May 30–June 2. Relying on skills developed in the DARPA projects, PAVE made an impressive debut, winning the event’s design competition, placing third among 47 teams in the overall standings, and earning the Rookie of the Year award.

Team leader Jonathan Mayer ’09, a Woodrow Wilson School major, said that the project required a mix of creative computer programming and dirt-under-the-nails engineering. The team’s robot, Kratos, named for the Greek god of power, featured a stereo camera, digital compass, and GPS device mounted on a tower at the back of a sturdy, hull-like aluminum frame that contained the robot’s motor and three wheels (two in the back, one in the front). Two internal computers, which the team built from scratch, ran code that enabled the robot to find specific GPS locations and chart an optimal course around any obstacles spotted by the camera without any human guidance. While Kratos was not flawless on the obstacle course, the robot’s errors were grazes and sideswipes, Mayer said, not head-on collisions.

Eight of the nine team members will return to Princeton in the fall to work on PAVE’s next project. Mayer is intrigued by a contest for autonomous submarines, while Chris Baldassano ’09, who is working in a robotics lab at the University of Pennsylvania this summer, likes the idea of creating a flying robot. Franken said a few students are tinkering with PAVE’s fall 2007 project, Prospect 12, a self-driving SUV that competed in the DARPA Urban Challenge. Their goal for the summer is to make Prospect 12 capable of passing the New Jersey driver’s exam — without a driver.

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