During MIT’s Independent Activities Period (IAP), students get a break from their regular semester work to pick from a menu of lectures, workshops, and micro-courses. That’s how roughly 20 students ended up sprinting through the basement of the Stata Center one January afternoon, trying to keep up with the miniature autonomous cars they’d programmed for maximum speed.
Titled 6.S184 RACECAR (Rapid Autonomous Complex-Environment Competing Ackermanndrive Robotics), the IAP class gathered for seven sessions. Between lectures, students met in teams, developing software with the algorithms they’d learned. The offering was spearheaded by MIT Lincoln Laboratory and MIT’s AeroAstro and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science departments. It was taught this year for the fourth time by Lincoln Lab staff Michael Boulet SM ’08 and Ken Gregson, along with Class of ’48 Career Development Chair Associate Professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics Sertac Karaman SM ’09, PhD ’12. The director of Lincoln Lab Beaver Works, Robert Shin ’77, SM ’80, PhD ’84, provided additional support and resources.
Karaman notes that the culminating race through Stata’s hallways enlivens the class, but the main objective is broader: “to introduce our students to this hardware and have them develop algorithms and software that is similar to what is used in self-driving vehicles. We believe this experience transforms their understanding of the technology.” The speed challenge does have a purpose beyond friendly competition, he adds: “It forces us to think outside the box, and work to develop software that utilizes the sensory and computational resources to their fullest, which is one of the biggest challenges in developing robots today.”
This year one of the teams set a new speed record. “The handling of the turns and intersections was almost perfect, and I believe it was better than what a human driver can achieve with remote control,” Karaman notes. “We had tremendous fun!”
When I read the article, I thought “10mph, that doesn’t sound impressive!”
But on seeing the video of the car racing through the hallways with the students running to keep up, the magnitude of this accomplishment truly comes to light.
A decade ago, I tinkered with building my own robotic vehicle on this scale, and recall how difficult it was to even get that simple, sonar based system, to drive more than a modest walking pace using a tiny 8-bit microcontroller. So seeing this car running fully autonomously using micro-LIDAR and vision capabilities, powered by a computational unit orders of magnitude more capable, truly blew my mind.
Congratulations to the students and those that mentored them in this great project. I look forward to seeing what they accomplish in the upcoming decades!
The print edition says to visit spectrum.mit.edu/racecar to see the video (you can see that URL in the lower-right of the photo), but that URL doesn’t work.