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“Little Ben” shows big promise

"Little Ben" is one of 36 driverless vehicles still alive in the DARPA Urban Challenge.

“Little Ben” continues to drive itself toward a potential million-dollar date with destiny.

The self-driving car created by engineers from Lehigh, Lockheed Martin and the University of Pennsylvania is one of 36 vehicles, out of 89 original entrants, to advance to the semifinals of the DARPA Urban Challenge.

The next step for the souped-up Toyota Prius will be the national qualifying trials scheduled for Oct. 26-31 in Victorville, Calif.

The top 20 finishers at that event will advance to the finals on Nov. 3, where, without human guidance, they must safely navigate a 60-mile urban course in less than six hours, all the while obeying traffic laws, merging into moving traffic, negotiating intersections and avoiding obstacles that are both moving and stationary.

The three fastest finishers will receive cash prizes of $2 million, $1 million and $500,000.

The overall goal of the competition is to advance DARPA’s goal of developing sophisticated, driverless, ground-combat vehicles for the U.S. military and thus meet a congressional mandate that one-third of such vehicles be unmanned by 2015.

DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is the research arm of the Pentagon. The current Urban Challenge is the third of its kind.

Little Ben is the product of the Ben Franklin Racing Team, a consortium comprising Penn, Lehigh and Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Technology Laboratories. It is equipped with GPS, lasers, cameras and other sensors.

DARPA chose Little Ben to take part in the semifinals after a successful demonstration July 8 at Lehigh. The sedan navigated a four-way intersection, followed basic navigation and traffic laws, avoided obstacles and reacted intelligently to events. The car also showed an understanding of intersection precedence and successfully interacted with other vehicles by passing at appropriate times.

More than 50 spectators came to witness Little Ben’s driving skills at the demonstration before DARPA. The car’s performance during these tests, say team members, was flawless.

“It’s extremely gratifying to take knowledge from the classroom and see it at work in the field,” says Dan Lee, team leader and associate professor of electrical and systems engineering at Penn. “But we have our work cut out for us to prepare for the upcoming race.”

Little Ben is currently using the parking lot at Stabler Arena to prepare for the Urban Challenge semifinals.

“We needed the space, which is hard to come by at Penn or at Lehigh’s main campus,” says John Spletzer, assistant professor of computer science and engineering and director of Lehigh’s VADER (Vision, Assistive Devices and Experimental Robotics) Laboratory. “At Stabler, we can set up road courses and simulate traffic. Our next course for the test run will be larger since we’ve made it to the nationals.”

--Kurt Pfitzer

Posted on Tuesday, September 04, 2007

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