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Oct. 25: Carnegie Mellon's Tartan Racing Team Prepares for DARPA Qualification Event


Byron Spice                  
In Victorville, Calif.: 412-559-8501     
Anne Watzman                        

Carnegie Mellon's Tartan Racing Team
Prepares for DARPA Qualification Event

Urban Challenge Will Showcase Promise of Autonomous Driving

VICTORVILLE, Calif. — Carnegie Mellon University's Tartan Racing team,, and Boss, its autonomous SUV, are ready for the next step in their drive to the DARPA Urban Challenge - the National Qualification Event (NQE) at the former George Air Force Base.

TR logo"The technical challenges Boss will face in this event, run on urban streets and governed by the rules of the road, was beyond the capability of any robotic vehicle just a few years ago," said William "Red" Whittaker, the Tartan Racing team leader and a pioneering roboticist in Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute. "But months of development and testing strengthen our conviction that the Urban Challenge is within the grasp of today's technology.   

"Robots that can drive themselves in traffic not only are possible - they're inevitable. In the days ahead, this team hopes to prove that to the world," Whittaker said. Based on performance at the NQE, Oct. 26-31, DARPA will select up to 20 teams to compete in the Nov. 3 Urban Challenge, a 60-mile competition with a $2 million prize for first place.

The 45-member Tartan Racing team includes Carnegie Mellon faculty, staff and students from the School of Computer Science's Robotics Institute, as well as Carnegie Mellon's College of Engineering. Industrial sponsors are active parts of the team, with several of them embedding their engineers full-time with the team. The result is a team that integrates the best talents of academia and industry.

Tartan Racing's Boss is a 2007 Chevy Tahoe that uses 19 sensors of six types to perceive its surroundings. Software running on 10 Intel Core2Duo blade computers uses the sensor input to build a model of Boss' environment and to choose an appropriate set of actions for each road and traffic situation.

Each of the 35 semifinalist teams had to demonstrate technical prowess to get invited to the NQE, but Tartan Racing has several characteristics that set it apart:

  • Rigorous testing. "The team that tests the best is the team that wins," Whittaker said, and so Tartan Racing has made extensive, realistic testing its hallmark. Using two identically prepared vehicles to double the team's testing capabilities, the team has logged more than 2,000 autonomous miles during more than six months of rigorous testing. Most of those miles were turned in on the grounds of a former steel mill in Pittsburgh, a 40-acre site that the team calls Robot City. The team also made use of the General Motors Desert Proving Ground in Mesa, Ariz., and, since Sept. 24, the former Castle Air Force Base in Merced, Calif.
  • Analysis tools. Tartan Racing has developed tools that allow team members to rapidly identify and correct problems that arise during testing. "Just as a good football team improves itself by watching film of its games, our system allows the team to visualize the vehicle's performance during tests," Whittaker said.
  • Sponsors integrated into the team. "Our sponsors don't just provide money or equipment; they are active participants," said Chris Urmson, director of technology. "They're here day to day, working side-by-side with other team members to solve problems." Engineers embedded full-time include Hong Bae and Wende Zhang of GM, Michael Taylor of Caterpillar, Michael Darms of Continental AG and David Ferguson of Intel.
  • Software. Sensor technology and robotic actuators are technologies that many teams share, but methods for combining sensor inputs and for planning an appropriate course for the vehicle  are ways by which teams will differentiate themselves. "Our brand of behaviors have so much rigor and contain so many contingencies that Boss will be more than capable of handling all of the required skills for driving," Whittaker said.
  • Experience. Carnegie Mellon's Robotics Institute is one of the largest robotic research organizations in the world and has spawned numerous autonomous robots designed for use in planetary exploration, environmental remediation, agriculture, mining and security. Whittaker, Urmson and other team members are veterans of both previous DARPA Grand Challenges, with vehicles finishing second and third in the 2005 race. Among Tartan Racing's sponsors, GM and Caterpillar boast active research programs in autonomous operations and Continental AG lends its extensive know-how in active and passive safety systems.

In addition to GM, Caterpillar and Continental AG, Tartan Racing's sponsors include Intel, Google, Applanix, TeleAtlas, NetApp, Vector CANTech, Ibeo, Mobileye, HP, CarSim, CleanPower Resources, M/A-Com and McCabe Software.