CHAMPAIGN – Noah Zych got a tough assignment: Build a vehicle that can navigate through cities on its own.
The vehicle had to stop at stop signs, maneuver around other cars, merge into moving traffic.
"Anything a human would do when driving through a city, it was supposed to do the same thing," Zych said.
Not for just a few minutes, either. The vehicle had to go on three missions, hit a series of checkpoints and travel nearly 60 miles in all.
The assignment was part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Urban Challenge, which pits university and corporate teams against one another.
Zych, from Champaign, was part of an 11-person team from Cornell University that spent months preparing for the competition, held Nov. 3 on a former Air Force base in Victorville, Calif.
The team took a 2007 Chevy Tahoe, tore out the interior and installed computer and power systems and sensors in it. Zych was the lead mechanical engineer. Other team members were designated leads for electrical systems, sensors and artificial intelligence.
"When classes were going on, everyone easily put in a 40-hour week on top of schoolwork," Zych said. "Since classes ended in May, we've been working about 80 hours a week."
Zych, 22, is a 2002 graduate of University High School, Urbana. He is the son of Robert and Carla Zych of Champaign.
This year's contest was Zych's second attempt to win the DARPA competition. He first heard about the challenge in 2004 and decided to take part in 2005.
"We recruited a full team of people, corporate sponsors, and put together an entry for that one. For being a first-year team, we did reasonably well," he said.
The entry that year made it into the final round of qualifications and traveled 12 miles on a course through the desert before suffering a glitch.
"We definitely learned an awful lot from the first time around," Zych said. "The first time around, we did everything on a shoestring budget. We had to beg, borrow and steal everything on the vehicle."
The second time, the Cornell team got a $1 million DARPA grant to pay for the project.
"It's amazing how fast that money goes when you're buying things on the scale we were, with sensors and computers," he said. "We spent about $750,000 of the million ... by the time the competition rolled around."
Zych said 89 teams entered the competition, with most of those receiving site visits from DARPA last summer. During national qualifications Oct. 26 to Oct. 31, 35 teams underwent tests to determine which vehicles were capable of competing. Eleven teams qualified, including the "Skynet" team from Cornell.
On the day of competition, vehicles were released from the starting area every five minutes. Since the vehicles were driverless, Cornell team members couldn't see their vehicle most of the time it was on the course.
"We were sitting there hoping it would come back," he said.
To simulate urban traffic, DARPA hired 50 semiprofessional off-road race drivers to operate cars along the course.
If, for some reason, one of the robotic vehicles got stuck, its team was allowed to go out and "do an intervention." But the team had only 60 seconds to get it going.
"We did have an intervention," Zych said. "In that case, one of our cameras had stopped uploading data the way it was supposed to. After we reset that, everything was OK."
The vehicles had to complete the course in less than six hours, and Cornell's entry was one of six that did so. But teams from Carnegie-Mellon, Stanford and Virginia Tech took the top three places.
"In general, we were just happy with finishing the course," Zych said. "That was a significant challenge in and of itself. We developed problems that caused us to go rather slowly. We had an issue with the throttle circuit built for the car. A component failed, and that limited us to 10 percent of the full throttle capacity of the car. It was idling around the course, instead of accelerating."
Mark Campbell, a Cornell associate professor who served as an adviser to the team, said he was happy with Skynet's performance.
"All in all, I'm pretty pleased, even though we would have loved to win the $2 million (grand prize)," he said. "I'm most happy that the guys were able to come back from a disastrous finish two years ago and complete the race."
Campbell said he was impressed with the complexity and frequency of the tasks.
"We probably merged into traffic 100 times without an incident," he said.
Zych received his bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering from Cornell. After receiving the master's in May, he stayed at Cornell to finish working on the DARPA project and was hired as a temporary staff member.
"Now I have to move on and get a real job," he said. "I'd like to continue working in the robotics area."
Zych said he doubts robotic cars will become commonplace any time soon.
"It will be a while before we see this technology on a production vehicle, mainly because of liability concerns," he said.
But the Defense Department certainly takes an interest in it.
"Their main objective is to move the technology forward ... to get unmanned vehicles to do things for the military on supply missions and things of that nature," he said. "The vehicles could travel through dangerous areas without losing American lives."