A student-led team of robotics experts will participate in the penultimate event next week for an international challenge that could pave the way for future breakthrough innovations in the world of autonomous vehicles.
Sound familiar? It should, given Pittsburgh universities’ history of performing well in challenges such as the DARPA Grand Challenge, DARPA Urban Challenge or the 2012-2015 Robotics Challenge.
But this time it’s not a Carnegie Mellon University-led team that is preparing – it’s a student group of roboticists from the University of Pittsburgh readying itself for next week’s Indy Autonomous Challenge finals on October 23rd. The goal of the challenge is a race around the famous Indianapolis Motor Speedway in self-driving cars – the grand prize of $1 million is up for grabs.
Leading the team is Nayana Suvarna, the head of Pitt’s Robotics & Automation Society (RAS), a robotics club at the school that pursues robotics education opportunities (the school doesn’t have a formal robotics program). Other co-leaders include Andrew Saba and Joshua Spisak – graduates of Pitt who are now pursuing master’s degrees at CMU.
After some initial hesitancy, Suvarna and her team recruited others from the ranks of Pittsburgh’s robotics community, as well as students from other universities. The combined team now includes students from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT) and the University of Waterloo in Canada.
“In December 2020 we started talking with MIT’s team about merging, because the nice thing about MIT’s team is that we’re both student clubs,” said Suvarna. “This gives us a level of autonomy (forgive the pun) that other teams, created and led by professors, may not have. But we also get the best of both worlds since professors like Dr. Dickerson are there if we have questions about navigating the bureaucracy or other administrative things at the school.”
Samuel Dickerson, Ph.D., an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, is the team’s advisor. He said what the team has done to advance within the Indy Autonomous Challenge has been a great story of Pittsburgh and the community of resources that have helped them progress. “We have a group of people who are playing a big role in a global competition,” said Dickerson. “This is going to be the first group of people in the history of the universe to race a car this fast.”
Before the team could get to the finals in Indianapolis, they needed to raise some money. The competition requires an investment of $300,000 by the teams in order to pay for the car that is being used on the track. “We didn’t have as much sway as a professor-led team, who could get a grant to pay for the car,” says Suvarna. “We had to go out to sponsors and pitch and get the money for that.”
“We encouraged them to go out and knock on doors and ask for money, thinking that’s the end of the story,” adds Dickerson. “But Nayana did it. Before you know it, the team grew to the size it is now, and they were able to get title sponsors and others. For students to fundraise that kind of level of money on their own is unheard of.”
Sponsors from the Pittsburgh community include PNC Bank, Swanson Engineering, Argo AI and IAM Robotics, showcasing their commitment and support of the racing team. The team’s title sponsor is Mobilitas, an Arizona-based insurance company, but one that has Pittsburgh connections through another company, Koop Technologies. Koop’s co-founder and CEO, Sergey Litvinenko, reached out to Suvarna to see how they could help, Suvarna says. “He reached out because he saw that we were part of the competition and said, ‘Hey, this is a really cool competition. I’m a Pitt alum, I want to see you guys succeed,’” says Suvarna.
The team has also received support from the Carnegie-Mellon robotics community. Both Saba and Spisak have been able to work with CMU’s Matthew Travers and Sebastian Scherer, and Suvarna said she was able to work with Professor Howie Choset for about two years. “I wouldn’t have been able to lead or work on this project without the opportunity given to me by Howie to work in his lab to gain experience,” she says.
Pittsburgh companies also have a role in the Indy Autonomous Challenge itself. Ansys, which develops engineering simulation software, is the main simulation sponsor of the event. Aptiv, which develops self-driving vehicle technology, is a vehicle sponsor of the challenge.
“Ansys is proud to host the Indy Autonomous Challenge Simulation Race, blending our commitment to academia with our ongoing advancements in autonomous simulation,” the company says. “It is exciting to enable a new generation of technologists to advance the state of the art for autonomy as they address the challenges of high velocity perception and planning and of maintaining vehicle control at the edge of stability.”
Teams were able to develop, test and refine their AV software stacks prior to receiving a physical racecar by using Ansys simulation software. The company hosted a series of three Hackathon Challenges designed to tackle specific racing scenarios. The simulation race consisted of several stages modeled after the Indy 500 race qualifying process, including individual single lap time trials, followed by practice races, semi-final heats and the final simulation race. The PITT-MIT team was one of only four teams out of 16 that successfully completed the simulation race, Ansys says.
Argo, another Pittsburgh-based global leader in AV technologies, offered words of support for the PITT-MIT team. “At Argo, we are proud to support the next generation of roboticists as they solve new challenges and explore how technology can have a positive impact on society,” says Zack Katic, director of talent at Argo AI. “We wish the Robotics & Automation Society the best of luck at the Indy Autonomous Challenge.”
Suvarna and Dickerson both say that the contributions and resources of the Pittsburgh robotics community – whether through company support or alumni outreach – has been great, but that they could always use more collaborators and sponsors. Beyond next week’s competition, Suvarna said the team will be competing in Roborace with MIT next year, and sponsors and funding will be needed for that competition’s vehicle.
The collaborative nature of the Pittsburgh community has helped drive the team, which is also one of the goals of the Pitt robotics club, she adds. “The big focus of our club is to bring more people into robotics. There’s a thread through our team and a common passion – once someone graduates, they stick around and help mentor. For instance, Andrew and Josh, my two co-leads, have graduated, but they’re heavily involved in supporting me and have helped me reach this point of leading the team. There’s a heavy passion in our club to support each other, even after we graduate, because we want to bring more people into the community.”
For information about sponsoring the racing team, send an email to [email protected].