Having placed third in the prestigious DARPA Urban Challenge in 2007, engineering students from Virginia Tech have returned to the forefront of autonomous vehicle development by designing and building four GUSS (Ground Unmanned Support Surrogate) vehicles. A collaboration between Virginia Tech, the Maritime Corps Warfighting laboratory and unmanned systems technology company TORC, the vehicles are set to support a platoon of Marines amidst 14 nations, 34 ships, 100 aircraft and more than 20,000 participants at the upcoming 2010 Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) war games.

Each GUSS vehicle can carry up to 1800 lbs and move at around the same speed as a troop on foot (5 mph). Designed to operate off road and in any weather condition, the vehicles can assist troops in the field with point to point resupply, reducing the weight of loads manually carried by Marines, as well as providing a means of immediate evacuation if necessary.

The team at Virginia Tech used TORC’s existing Robotic Building Blocks product line, building on its previous collaboration together for the DARPA Urban Challenge. One example of this is the use of existing algorithms previously developed under the partnership to create a customized version of the TORC AutoNav (autonomous navigation system), developed and used to create the necessary off road tactical behaviors required by the Marine Corps Warfighting laboratory. Focusing on the various integration challenges the team completed the entire development process in less than twelve months, with the additional three GUSS vehicles produced over the next five.

Developed by TORC, the main operator interface, called the WaySight, is a one pound handheld unit that Marines can use to take remote control of the vehicle or rapidly plan a new path.

“The focus of the collaboration is to leverage the research capabilities of the university with the commercialization capabilities of a small business,” said professor of mechanical engineering and Virginia Tech team advisor Al Wicks. The GUSS vehicles are “an outgrowth of the technology developed for these DARPA competitions. The sensors have been greatly improved, as well as the perception, planning and control algorithms to navigate complex environments.”

While the Urban Challenge presented entrants with a co-operative and well defined environment, the use of GUSS by the Marine Corps in unpredictable and off-road surrounds is described as “a big step forward for autonomous vehicles.”

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