Vehicles That Drive Themselves? UCLA Engineering Pushes Autonomous Control to the Limit

Sep 30, 2005

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

2005 DARPA Grand Challenge Contenders Get Their Start on TV’s “Jeopardy”

By M. Abraham

What is the DARPA Grand Challenge? A group of vehicles traveling under their own steam will cross the desert on Saturday, October 8, in a high-stakes government race worth $2 million. Among them will be the team from the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science – a talented group that started out with a desire to win and a jackpot garnered by one of its members on the hit TV game show “Jeopardy.”

Sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, the Grand Challenge was conceived last year to encourage the development of unmanned vehicles for combat. Held in the desert Southwest, the team that develops an autonomous ground vehicle that finishes the designated route the quickest within 10 hours wins. The initial prize money, doubled after none of the 15 contestants in last year’s race were able to complete the difficult course, is a nice incentive, but for UCLA it’s not the central one.

“It’s really about the challenge of building a machine that can essentially drive on its own more than it is about the money,” says Jason Meltzer, one of the returning members of the group whose college quiz bowl colleague Richard Mason sank his $30,000 Jeopardy winnings into outfitting the group’s first car. “The race is a strategy game. It takes knowledge, a lot of preparation, timing and luck. In this case, it’s a team effort.”

This year’s DARPA team is a consortium of The Golem Group – the company Mason co-founded with teammate Jim Radford – and UCLA, and includes faculty and graduates from computer science, mechanical engineering and electrical engineering, among them UCLA Vision Lab director Stefano Soatto and mechanical engineering professor Emilio Frazzoli.

Eagle Jones, another returning graduate student from last year who has spent considerable time and effort on the project, says the group is well positioned for the second race, particularly because they come from diverse engineering, scientific, and cultural backgrounds, all of which adds new perspectives on problems that a more concentrated team might miss.

“Our new vehicle is particularly well done. The hardware and integration is well planned and executed. Our software has been developed far beyond last year. A large number of sensors are integrated into the vehicle, including a vision system from MobilEye that finds off-road paths,” he explains.

The team is hoping that all of these improvements will spell success. Last year’s unmanned vehicle traveled 5.2 miles, and was one of the best performers in the field despite a fatal problem with a throttle replaced just before the race.

For their second attempt, they have designed and equipped two vehicles simultaneously – one as a contender and one as a back up. The vehicles cannot be controlled remotely and must rely on global positioning, various sensors, lasers, radar and vision systems, or cameras, to orient themselves and detect and avoid randomly placed obstacles. The exact course is kept a highly guarded secret until just two hours before the actual race time.

As for the vehicle, “Everything is improved this year,” says Meltzer. “There is not one system that remains unchanged since last year’s race. There can’t be a single focus in a project like this, since there is far too much to do. So we’ve split our efforts into a number of areas: control, planning, sensing, and hardware. Each of these have advanced tremendously in the past year.”

Nearly 200 participants from across the US and Canada and several foreign countries applied for the Grand Challenge this year, a much higher number than previously. The contenders were whittled down in various challenge races to the final group. If no one wins the second endeavor, the prize money will be doubled to $4 million dollars. But if one of the vehicles does successfully cross the finish line, it’s unlikely the race will be held again next year.

Regardless, the team agrees there isn’t another “Jeopardy” appearance in their future now that the car has substantial funding based on its strong performance last year. But, Meltzer laughs, “Who knows? They’re all brilliant guys.”

For more information on UCLA’s vision lab, go to

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