on their side. The other competitors grouse about
the fairness of having to race wheeled vehicles
against an airplane.
Fig. A: Jordi Muñoz with drone. Fig. B: Tree eats
drone. Fig. C: Drone escapes tree. Fig. D: SWOSUME
— an autonomous ice chest on wheels.
10 a.m.: A crowd of 50 people gathers around the
starting line. In the first heat, four vehicles lead off in
the right direction, but are unable to make a left turn
and can’t reach the second waypoint.
Just when some people begin to wonder whether
the challenge is ahead of the current technology for
hobby autonomous vehicles, Team MookeMobile’s
Deathpod3000 gives the crowd hope. The modified remote control race car handily makes the first
turn, and the competitors and spectators, who are
allowed to roam freely on the course, run behind
it, cheering and laughing. Deathpod3000 makes
the second, third, and fourth turns, returning to the
starting point. The other teams are delighted to
witness the milestone, not only out of camaraderie,
but because they now know it’s possible.
11 a.m.: The employees of SparkFun have their
own team. Their vehicle, OhCrap TheresALake
(referring to the pond beyond the parking lot),
shoots off the starting block, bounces on all four
wheels, and makes wild, unpredictable turns. It
starts chasing people. Two spectators have to jump
over the crazed machine so it doesn’t ram their feet.
The crowd scatters in a giddy half-panic, until the
beast collides with the curb, which discombobulates
it long enough for its handlers to hit the kill switch.
Why are the rovers having trouble? For one thing,
says Nathan Seidle, CEO of SparkFun, skewing problems with GPS can make a vehicle think it’s 20 feet
from where it really is. Anderson says that Google
Maps, which he and Muñoz use to mark waypoints
for their drone to fly to, has accuracy problems that
they compensate for by tweaking the flight plan.
They were disqualified in the first heat for clipping
the corners of the course, but Anderson is not discouraged. “We’ll nail it,” he says.
Besides location and mapping problems, many of
the vehicles have internal bugs. A professional hacky
sack maker from Gunnison, Colo., explains that his
car, 401K, failed because the “latitude conked out in
the software. I probably messed up a line of code.”
Team BOB (“bouncing off bumpers”) is trying
to trace the short circuit that fried the MOSFETs in
their vehicle’s control system. LabRats’ Spheroid,
which runs like a hamster in a ball, is comatose for
unknown reasons. And Old Man Earl drove ten hours
from New Mexico with a non-working quadrocopter
just to show it to folks, promising it will be ready to
compete next year.
Every vehicle has had one shot so far (they’ll get
three chances), and Deathpod3000 is the only one
that has completed the course successfully. Built
by Denver software developer Eric Moore and his
10: 45 a.m.: It’s Dennis Ferron’s turn. The
good-natured 25-year-old, who is studying for
his doctorate in software engineering, sets
SWOSUME on the starting line. The other cars in
the race measure 2 feet or less, but SWOSUME is
built from an ice chest, and its motor and wheels
come from a Power Wheels car — the kind a kid
can sit in and drive around the backyard.
The judge gives the signal and Ferron flips a
switch. SWOSUME rumbles across the rough asphalt, its hard plastic wheels spitting up gravel.But
instead of turning left it drives straight off the lot
and enters a field of tall weeds and gets stuck.
Ferron trots after SWOSUME into the field, sits on
it, and uses the remote control to steer it back onto
the lot. His weight puts a strain on the rover’s power
controller and it starts smoking. “No problem,” says
Ferron. If one of the motor control channels burns
out, he explains, he’ll just run the motor from one of
the unused channels.