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A.strickler Big Cat Seeks a Challenge 8.28.05

A.strickler Big Cat Seeks a Challenge 8.28.05

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Published by andrewclyde
Andrew Strickler
Andrew Strickler

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Published by: andrewclyde on Aug 19, 2012
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08/19/2012

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Big Cat Seeks a Challenge
 
by Andrew Strickler
 
August 28, 2005For a dirty, dented 1991 Dodge Ram Charger with a busted window and more than200,000 miles on the odometer, the White Cougar is a pretty cool ride.The truck can navigate hairpin turns, avoid obstacles, regulate its speed through curves,and complete other automotive feats -- all without a driver. The White Cougar iscontrolled by a patched-together network of cameras, computers and controllers designedby Ron Fink, an unemployed Las Vegas computer programmer and self-taught robotdesigner.Standing in his garage-cum-laboratory, crowded with rusty tools and computer cables,Fink says that despite the rough exterior, the truck has the mind of a champion.
This vehicle travels in a four-dimen
sional event probability space,”
Fink explains inlanguage usually reserved f 
or computer science textbooks. “It‟
s constantly reasoning andanalyzing objects for motion and their likelihood for motion.
 Fink, along with two partners, built White Cougar
hoping to compete in this year‟
s GrandChallenge, a U.S. military-sponsored race for autonomous vehicles. The first team tocomplete the approximately 170-mile course through the Mojave Desert within 10 hoursgoes home $2 million richer.But Fink's team will have to wait until next year because a broken cooling system friedtwo computers and four hard drives just three days before an Aug. 15 race thatdetermined who advanced to the next round.The top three teams in that race advanced to the next elimination phase at CaliforniaSpeedway east of Los Angeles. That event, which will reduce the field to 20 finalists,starts Sept. 27.The Grand Challenge is sponsored by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency,or DARPA, a research branch of the U.S. Department of Defense. The final race, now inits second year, is scheduled for Oct. 8.Race rules forbid remote controls, repairs, or any external communications other thanGlobal Positioning System equipment; the machines must navigate ravines, landslidesand other challenges completely on their own.
 
Most Grand Challenge vehicles, which include modified Hummers and other high-endtrucks, are designed by researchers from universities and technology companies. Theycarry hundreds of thousands of dollars in lasers and radar systems donated by the likes of Intel, Hewlett-Packard, IBM and other sponsors.The White Cougar was purchased for $500 from a local salvage yard, which also donateda set of used tires. The vehicle's many computer controllers are run by two PCs built fromleftover parts and a 3-year-old laptop, which are held in place by seat belts on the truck'sback seat. A salvaged window motor and some heavy-duty fishing line pulls the throttle.The steering mechanism was stripped from a 1979 Ford Crown Victoria.Total investment: about $4,000.
We just used our heads and made this junk 
fly with just junkyard parts,”
Fink said.
Fink‟
s car was originally going to be named Dark Horse.
“Our marketing people said that‟
s a really poo
r name because they said that‟
s the team
that probably won't win,”
he said.Instead, they settled on the mythical White Cougar because Fink said the name evokesstrength, speed and intelligence.Fink, who says his only professional robotics experience was designing a machine to testelectricity meters, says he was motivated to build an autonomous vehicle after a nephewwas struck and killed in 2001 by a truck with a distracted driver at the wheel.
“That accident wouldn‟
t have happened with a truly autonomou
s vehicle,”
he said.Fink believes that the Gra
nd Challenge will fulfill DARPA‟
s goal of encouragingintellectual and financial investment in an emerging field.
I have a vision for the future, and the vision is that autonomous vehicles will beubiquitous, and nonautonomous vehicles will be the exception to the rule within 30
years,” Fink says. “
We'll see the 40,000 highway death
s a year drop to a few hundred.”
 
One of Fink‟
s partners, former auto mechanic Randy Reiss, has similarly grand ideas.
“You‟
ll clim
 b in your car and say „Take me to the office‟ and you‟
ll sit back and read the
 paper and off you‟ll go,”
said Reiss, who did much of the mechanical work on White
Cougar. “That‟
s whe
re this whole project is going.”
 Fink says that what White Cougar lacks in funds, it makes up for in ingenuity.Most navigation systems, Fink explains, compare digital images of approaching obstaclesframe by frame, adjusting the vehicle's speed and direction accordingly. Fink says hissoftware analyzes objects for position as well as their probability for motion.
When the vehicle tri
es to avoid an object, it doesn‟
t try to avoid it where it is now, ittries to avoid it where it thinks it will
 be when the truck gets there,”
Fink said.

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