Team Nova Presses on Despite Rain, Difficulties
CHICKASHA – Pouring rain and technical glitches couldn’t stop Team Nova from competing Wednesday morning in a national competition in robotics research. Computer scientist John K. Johnson and students at the University of Science and Arts welcomed a team from the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Team Nova is the only Oklahoma team in the national competition and is one of only 53 in America to receive a site visit from federal officials. On Aug. 10, DARPA will announce the top 30 teams selected for this fall’s Grand Urban Challenge race in November.
The USAO team met more than half its objectives in Wednesday’s test before the autonomous (driverless) vehicle was stopped because of safety concerns. Invasive rainwater and an unresponsive wireless emergency stop prevented the team from continuing its tests.
“Safety is a chief concern in every decision we make,” Johnson explained. “All of our robotics research is aimed at safety – protecting human life and reducing accidents. So our decision to stop the test was all about safety.” Still, the team demonstrated the essential systems and artificial intelligence software needed to operate a driverless vehicle.
State. Sen. Ron Justice watched the test in person with 40 other spectators huddled under umbrellas on a city street west of campus.
“This research is so important to Oklahoma,” Justice said. “We are exceedingly proud of the students and faculty who are leaders in this critical work. Reaching the top 50 in a national competition for research is no small achievement. Dr. Johnson’s work is fascinating. I commend the students and alumni who are working toward worthy goals.”
Local and state media attended the event, along with representatives from U.S. Congressman Tom Cole’s office.
“This is exciting research,” said Ryan Owens, a staff assistant to Congressman Cole. “Team Nova’s research has many applications for highway safety, military and economic development in Oklahoma. We are proud of their progress.”
USAO Regent Patti Rogstad praised the team’s tireless efforts to compete with national research giants.
“I never cease to be amazed by the work of faculty and students at USAO,” said Rogstand, a local businesswoman who earned her degree from USAO in 1993. “We have so much to be proud of in Team Nova’s accomplishments. Their hard work and dedication reflect so well on Chickasha and the University.”
Johnson, professor of computer science, formed Team Nova to meet DARPA’s challenge, and immediately he faced competition from nearly 200 teams across the globe, including giant research universities such as M.I.T., Stanford and Cal Tech. Eighty-nine teams made the first cut, and on May 10, DARPA announced a list of Top 53 teams from six countries that had been selected for a personal site visit. Team Nova, the only team from Oklahoma, made the list.
Students, faculty, staff and community members joined a crowd of spectators in the morning rain. After signing official papers and setting up street barriers, Team Nova wrestled with software issues before completing the first test run.
Guests watched as the computer-driven car accelerated to 20 mph before being manually stopped by one of Team Nova’s student scientists, who rode shotgun. The test demonstrated how quickly the vehicle could decelerate using the computer’s emergency stop function.
The next test involved a complete run of the barricaded one-block square track. Once Johnson and the team realized that the computer couldn’t connect to the wireless version of the emergency stop system, due to rainwater from the morning’s constant downfall, Johnson pulled the plug on the test.
Although Team Nova ran into some hurdles during the test, Johnson said his team of USAO students and grads will continue their work.
“I’m going to give the guys some time off, then we’re going to get back to work,” Johnson said. “DARPA still has to pick 30 teams for the qualifying round, and we still have a chance, depending on how the other teams perform.”