VictorTango wins $500,000 with an SUV that thinks like a driver

Nov. 3, 2007, update: VictorTango, the Virginia Tech Urban Challenge team, won third place and the $500,000 prize in the DARPA Urban Challenge competition. On Saturday, Nov. 3, the Virginia Tech autonomous vehicle, Odin, completed the 60-mile course in under six hours. Odin crossed the finish line just behind the first place entry from Carnegie Mellon University and the second place entry from Stanford University.

Nov. 1, 2007, update: VictorTango, the Virginia Tech Urban Challenge team, is one of only 11 out of 35 teams to succeed in the competition's qualifying rounds and move on to the final event on Saturday, Nov. 3, DARPA Director Tony Tether has announced.

VictorTango's autonomous vehicle, will be the only entry representing a Virginia team in the finals.

Oct. 30, 2007, update: On the fourth day of the Urban Challenge qualifying rounds in Victorville, Calif., Tether informed VictorTango that they were one of four teams that could "stand down" from test runs--because they've already done well enough to qualify for the final event on Nov. 3.

The three other teams in the first batch selected for the final event represent Carnegie Mellon, Cornell, and Stanford universities. In the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge, Stanford placed first and Carnegie Mellon came in second and third.

    The team's two Ford Escapes

Virginia Tech’s autonomous vehicle is competing in the national qualifying rounds of the Urban Challenge, thanks in part to a custom-designed drive-by-wire control system and unique navigation software that makes the vehicle’s driving decisions almost human.

    Members of the team work on the Escape

VictorTango, a team of Virginia Tech engineering and geography students, is among 35 semi-finalists selected by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to vie for the $2 million Urban Challenge prize. Qualifying rounds began Oct. 26 at the former George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif., and the final event takes place Nov. 3.

Teams have attempted to develop vehicles that can maneuver a 60-mile course of simulated military supply missions in less than six hours — with no human intervention allowed past the starting line. The vehicles will have to obey California traffic laws, merge into moving traffic, navigate traffic circles, negotiate intersections, and avoid a variety of obstacles.

Odin’s brain—custom-made for smart decisions

    The team shows the inside of the Escape showing the computer systems and a keyboard

VictorTango has converted two Escape hybrids donated by Ford Motor Co. to autonomous vehicles by outfitting them with a “drive-by-wire” system, said Patrick Currier, a mechanical engineering graduate student who is one of ten on the current team. The students dubbed the vehicles Odin after the chief god in Norse mythology.

“The drive-by-wire system allows the computers to control the throttle, brake, steering, and shifting and to drive the vehicle,” Currier said. “This system was custom developed by the team and is unique in that it is completely hidden from view, enabling Odin to retain full passenger capabilities.”

TORC Technologies LLC, a company in Virginia Tech’s Corporate Research Center founded by alumni of the university’s robotics program, has worked with VictorTango to develop the software for the vehicle’s computer system.

The navigational software is modeled on human behavior and makes Odin capable of choosing the best course out of millions of possible courses, Currier said.

The team has also outfitted Odin with four computers that perform specialized sensor processing and hardware interface tasks and two powerful servers that provide the primary computing power.

Odin’s eyes — designed for precise navigation

Three laser scanners mounted on the vehicle’s bumpers can scan a combined 360-degree field of view 12.5 times per second to detect obstacles.

Four more laser scanners are mounted on Odin’s roof rack — two detect small obstacles such as curbs and potholes and two check the vehicle’s blind spots when it changes lanes or merges into traffic.

There are two cameras mounted on the roof rack enabling Odin to sense its location and identify its proper position in the traffic lane. The cameras can also positively determine if an obstacle detected by the scanners is another vehicle.

Odin’s global positioning system (GPS) has been coupled with an inertial measurement unit and wheel speed sensors to measure movement in all directions.

"This system provides Odin with accurate position, even if the GPS signal is temporarily lost," Currier said. "Odin is capable of driving on a marked road, following moving traffic, passing stopped vehicles, handling four-way intersections, and performing three-point turns."

In addition, the vehicle has been fine-tuned so that it can merge with moving traffic, pass moving vehicles, and park.

VictorTango—a team loaded with experience

    VictorTango with one of the Escapes

The students are guided by four faculty advisers, three of them from Virginia Tech — Professor Alfred Wicks and Assistant Professor Dennis Hong of the College of Engineering’s mechanical engineering department, and Professor Bill Carstensen, chair of the geography department in the College of Natural Resources.

The team’s founding adviser, Charles Reinholtz, a former Virginia Tech Alumni Distinguished Professor of mechanical engineering and engineering education, continues to work with VictorTango.

In October 2006, VictorTango was one of only 11 “track A” teams chosen to receive $1 million contracts to develop autonomous vehicles capable of conducting simulated military supply missions in an urban setting. In all, 89 teams from universities and industry entered the competition in 2006.

In addition to the $1 million from DARPA and the two Escapes from Ford, the Virginia Tech team received a $100,000 grant from Caterpillar and additional sponsorship from National Instruments and several other corporations.

VictorTango qualified for the semi-finals during a site visit DARPA judges made to Virginia Tech earlier this year.

DARPA is sponsoring the Urban Challenge as a more sophisticated follow-up to the two Grand Challenge competitions, which were held in 2004 and 2005 in the Mojave Desert. Virginia Tech competed in both of those contests, and the university’s two entries placed eighth and ninth in 2005. 

Challenge track record

    Virginia Tech's maroon competition vehicle

In the 2005 Grand Challenge, both of Virginia Tech's vehicles--Cliff (below) and Rocky (above)--out-perfomed all other vehicles developed by a purely academic team.

    Virginia Tech's orange competition vehicle

In the 2004 Grand Challenge, Cliff was among the few autonomous vehicles that qualified for the starting line.

Intelligent ground vehicle

    U.S. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan (foreground) with the Virginia Tech team and their vehicle

U.S. Senator Carl Levin of Michigan (foreground) compliments the Virginia Tech team on its big win at the 2006 competition.

  • In June 2007, the Virginia Tech Autonomous Vehicle Team swept the International Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition for the fourth year in a row.
  • The team placed best overall and won the autonomous and navigation challenges.
  • During the competition, autonomous vehicles use on-board computer and navigational technologies to navigate obstacle courses and point-to-point destination courses without human intervention.

Autonomous surface vehicle

    The Autonomous Surface Vehicle on the water


The vehicle about to launch operations in St. Andrew Bay on the Gulf of Mexico.

Virginia Tech's vehicle uses an omni-directional camera to detect and map shoreline, boat traffic, and other navigational hazards.

Spotlight Archive

Look through previous Spotlight stories

Access the archives