Purdue News

May 2, 2005

Purdue engineering students unveil autonomous vehicle

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – An autonomous vehicle took center stage Friday (April 29) at Purdue University when a student-built, computer-controlled, dune-buggy-style car was unveiled on campus.

Making final modifications
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The vehicle was conceived, designed, engineered, built and tested by the students who dubbed their team "PAVE" for Purdue Autonomous Vehicle Engineering. This is the second-generation prototype of an autonomous vehicle developed by Purdue students. A complex set of computers that function as eyes, hands, feet and with limited reasoning abilities operates PAVE, which is powered by a Chevy Cavalier engine.

"The autonomous car project serves two purposes," said E. Daniel Hirleman, the William E. and Florence E. Perry Head of Mechanical Engineering, and one of the five instructors for the course. "The first is to serve the educational mission of Purdue by providing graduating engineers with a capstone experience that requires them to use much of what they've learned over four years to solve a large-scale problem.

"We provide them the best design tools and the best fabrication facilities available anywhere and see how far they can go. The second is to compete in a DARPA Grand Challenge event."

DARPA is funded and directed by the U.S. Department of Defense and stands for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which created the DARPA Grand Challenge. The competition challenges vehicle designers in the public and private sectors to create an unmanned vehicle that can successfully navigate a 175-mile field test with obstacles placed in its path across the Mojave Desert. The contest comes with $2 million in prize money.

In Indiana, Hirleman and other Purdue, Indiana University and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology faculty and students are also working with IndyRobotics LLC, parent company of the Indy Robot Racing Team, to create an unmanned vehicle. The first generation of this vehicle was unveiled in late January in Carmel, Ind., at the home of Scott Jones, co-leader of the robot racing team.

"Congress has mandated that by 2015, one-third of all military vehicles will be autonomous," said John Nolfi, a Purdue continuing lecturer in mechanical engineering. "As a result of this challenge, research into unmanned vehicles has increased dramatically in both the private and public sectors."

More than 120 graduating Purdue seniors from civil, computer, electrical and mechanical engineering participated this semester, In addition, nine mechanical engineering students from the Universität Karlsruhe in Germany from Purdue's GEARE program (Global Engineering Alliance for Research and Education) were in the class. The students were enrolled in four capstone design course sections that focused on chassis, suspension, drive train and finally sensors, navigation and control.

Through this project, students gain invaluable research skills in this field, and learn how to function on a multidisciplinary, multinational design team project, according to Hirleman.

"Whether the Purdue students' autonomous car wins or doesn't win a DARPA challenge, this project places our students on the cusp of this new technology," he said. "From farming to recreation to commuting to work to national defense, these types of vehicles will change transportation for everyone in the future."

Steve Williams, a fuel systems engineering manager from General Motors Corp., who is on assignment at Purdue this year as the GM Engineer in Residence, was also involved as an instructor in the course.

"I was amazed to see that Purdue is able to provide this type of comprehensive learning experience to its engineering students," he said. "They experienced the same type of challenges, deadlines, frustrations and stress that we feel in the automotive industry."

The Partners for the Advancement of Collaborative Engineering Education (PACE) program, of which GM is a member, provided software tools used by the students.

Zita Crayner, a mechanical engineer senior from Noblesville, Ind. who is leading the student group working on the fluid power systems for the vehicle, would like to see unmanned vehicles lead future exploration into space and some rugged areas of Earth.

"I can see this as a great way to explore the moon and Mars and also as a way to explore the outerreaches of Canada, Alaska, Antarctica and places that have not been explored yet," she said. "This opens a new frontier of exploration for all of us."

Levi Sutton, a mechanical engineering senior from New York, said the project has consumed most of his free time during the past few months.

"This is an ambitious and unique project," said Sutton, who is working on the suspension and steering of the vehicle. "It's not very often that a group of people can design and build a working vehicle in just three months, and this is an unmanned vehicle."

One of the biggest challenges of designing and developing an unmanned vehicle is to make the machine react appropriately to its environment.

"It is very difficult to make a machine understand the difference between a tumbleweed and a boulder," said Doug Herbert, an electrical and computer engineering senior from Carmel, Ind. "We're trying to make the computers that control the vehicle determine whether it needs to go around an obstacle or go over an obstacle, and that requires an incredible number of sensors and computers."

The autonomous vehicle currently has 10 types of sensors to "see" obstacles and terrain. A Global Positioning System to establish location, ultrasonic sensors that records sound as it bounces off objects, scanning laser to determine the size of obstacles and an integrated navigator to control speed are just a few of the sensors used in an unmanned vehicle.

In the fall, a new group of Purdue seniors will use the knowledge gained from this past academic year to begin the third-generation autonomous vehicle prototype that will be completed in December 2005.

Writer: Cynthia Sequin, (765) 494-4192, csequin@purdue.edu

Sources: E. Dan Hirleman, (765) 494-5688, hirleman@purdue.edu

John Nolfi, (765) 496- 7869, nolfijg@purdue.edu

Zita Crayner, (765) 414-1044, crayner@purdue.edu

Levi Sutton, (607) 423-2377, lgsutton@purdue.edu

Doug Herbert, (317) 432-7195, drh@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu


Related Web sites:
Purdue University Home Page


Purdue engineering students do final modifications to the second-generation prototype of an "autonomous" vehicle – that will move without a driver or remote control. From left are: Bobby Zapaoski, a mechanical engineering senior from Lavonia, Mich.; Matt Bramlage, a mechanical engineering senior from Lexington, Ky.; Zita Crayner, a mechanical engineering senior from Noblesville, Ind.; Julian Juergens, a mechanical engineering student from Universität Karlsruhe in Germany; Mark Gries, an electrical engineering senior from Wolverine Lake, Mich.; and Dustin Hofer, a mechanical engineering senior from Brookville, Ind. The vehicle was designed and built in one semester by a multidisciplinary, global team including more than 120 Purdue students and is operated by a complex set of computers that function as eyes, hands, feet and a limited-capacity "brain." (University News Service photo/David Umberger)

A publication-quality photograph is available at http://news.uns.purdue.edu/images/+2005/hirleman-vehicle.jpg


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