URI engineering students place second in national intelligent car competition

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KINGSTON, R.I. – May 9, 2013 – A team of three University of Rhode Island computer engineering students took second place in a national competition to build an intelligent model car that can rapidly follow a circuitous route without any humans controlling it.

URI seniors Jillian Burgess of North Kingstown, Steve Norris of North Attleboro and Ben Ricci of Portsmouth entered the Freescale Cup as a term project while enrolled in a computer organization course, an alternative to typical laboratory experiments and exams. Provided with a model car kit, standard components, and a Freescale computer to drive it, the students engineered the vehicle and wrote computer programs and algorithms to enable the car to autonomously follow a black line on a track to the finish line.

The students’ vehicle finished first on April 27 in a timed race against teams from 16 other universities in the eastern United States, but they lost in a head-to-head competition against the winner of the western regional, the University of California at Berkeley. The Berkeley team will travel to China to compete in the world championship later this year.

“We arrived, pushed go and it ran the whole course without a problem,” said Ricci, who aims for a career in robotics or embedded software after graduation this month. “I expected we would do well, but winning wasn’t even on my radar.”

“We had a really good feeling we were going to do well when we got there, but in the process of getting to that point we were a bit iffy about it,” added Burgess.

The vehicles use a camera and sensors to “see” the black line on the track, then process that data to make decisions about proper steering and speed. Once the students push a button to start the vehicle, they provide no additional input.

“Most of it was a programming exercise, but our steering control algorithm was also really well written,” said Norris, who is returning to URI for graduate school next fall. “We detected and reacted to turns better than the other teams. The other teams would constantly over-steer.”

Of the 20 teams in the eastern regional competition, just five completed the course successfully. A second URI team failed to finish.

The URI students, who were advised by Professor Qing Yang, said that they put in a lot more work on the competition than if they had simply conducted the traditional lab experiments with the class instead, but it was worth the extra effort.

“We worked really well together as a team and integrated what we learned in all our other classes into this one project with great success,” said Ricci.

“I really liked it because it was applicable to the outside world,” Burgess said. “I liked how we applied what we learned to a real-world problem. Putting it all together gives us a great perspective on how we can use what we’ve learned in the future.”

Pictured above

URI students (l-r) Jillian Burgess, Ben Ricci and Steve Norris pose with their trophies and car after winning the East regional competition of the Freescale Cup, a competition to build an intelligent model car. (Photo courtesy of Steve Norris.)