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Out of their minds

Outside the classroom, RIT students invest energy and imagination in projects with major rewards.

Editor’s note:
The themes of RIT’s 175th anniversary celebration, “Education, Exploration and Innovation”, are deeply embedded into student life at the university. In this edition, The University Magazine takes a look at how students are encouraged to explore beyond the classroom.

It may not be everyone's idea of a sweet set of wheels, but one particular 1991 Geo Storm hatchback is a dream come true for a group of RIT students.

G-CART co-captain Mark Baybutt makes an adjustment on the remote-controlled Geo Storm's operating system.

This unique car represents a feat of invention rivaling the development of Edison's light bulb. The students successfully converted the aging compact into a driverless vehicle. Steering, brakes, throttle and gear shift can be controlled from outside the car.

This work - accomplished in under three months - was the first phase of a much more ambitious project for RIT's Grand Challenge Autonomous Race Team - a.k.a. G-CART. Their ultimate goal is to build a fully autonomous vehicle - a car that drives itself - capable of completing a grueling 150-mile trek across the Mojave Desert from Barstow, Calif., to Las Vegas in less than 10 hours. If they can accomplish that goal, they have a good chance of winning the $2 million prize offered by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

"It's a huge challenge," admits G-CART co-captain Mark Baybutt, a third-year electrical engineering major with a computer engineering concentration. "We have no blueprints, no directions for how to do this. It's up to us to figure out what needs to be done and how to do it."

Word of Art
The most recent publication of the Cary Graphic Arts Press is View It! The Art and Architecture of RIT. This guide to the university's public art features a foreword by RIT Archivist BeckySimmons, an essay on the architecture of RIT by retired College of Liberal Arts Professor Houghton Wetherald and color photographs of about two-dozen works. A map, designed to encourage walking tours of campus, also is included. The price is $9.95. For more information on this book or other publications of Cary Graphic Arts Press, visit the Web at http://wally.rit.edu/cary/carypress.html.

G-CART is one of the newest and most ambitious examples in a long tradition of independent projects tackled by RIT students over the years. Working outside the classroom with minimal faculty intervention, students produce specialty publications, conduct scientific research, design and construct park benches, and build assorted vehicles including race cars, moon buggies, concrete canoes and airplanes - to name just a few of the enterprises.

In the case of G-CART, there's much more to the effort than "just" building the vehicle. The team also faces the task of funding the project, finding work space, and securing a more suitable vehicle. It's up to the students to earn support within RIT and to make persuasive presentations to potential outside sponsors.

Touch the sky
People on campus in 1972 vividly recall the 100-by-200-foot floating balloon grid created by 30 students in the School of Art and Design. Photos of the project appeared in newspapers as far afield as France and China.

They're up against stiff competition: Fifteen teams sponsored by private companies as well as universities competed in the first DARPA challenge last March. No team came close to winning. Carnegie Mellon's "Red Team" reportedly spent several million dollars on its effort, and was given two Hummer H1s by AM General for the 2005 challenge.

"We're definitely working on the underdog thing," quips Josh Karpoff, a third year electrical engineering technology major.

The RIT team funded its Phase 1 effort with about $2,000 from various campus sources. The Geo Storm - damaged and undriveable - was donated by a student. The group got permission to work in the College of Applied Science and Technology's Manufacturing and Mechanical Engineering Technology materials testing lab - but only on weekends, when the lab isn't being used for classes.

The bulk of the Phase I work was done by a core group of about a dozen undergraduates representing a range of majors in the B. Thomas Golisano College of Computing and Information Sciences, the College of Applied Science and Technology, and the Kate Gleason College of Engineering. They gutted the Geo's interior and built operating systems mostly using off-the-shelf electronic and mechanical components, including video-game controls. Realizing that a driverless car could be potentially dangerous, they incorporated numerous fail-safe systems - including a shut-off activated by cell phone.

Pressing matters
In 2002, 2003 and 2004, the RIT chapter of the Technical Association of the Graphic Arts won the best overall production quality award in the organization?s national competition. The 2004 entry, Novo, featured student research papers and antique illustrations.

"This project is not for the meek," says team advisor William Leonard '97, '03 (mechanical engineering, multidisciplinary studies), a faculty member in the manufacturing and mechanical engineering technology department. "These students have taken on a challenge that whole industries are working on."

In fact, Leonard believes that business opportunities could develop from the G-CART project. DARPA is interested in military applications of robotic vehicles, but there could be many commercial uses as well.

Meanwhile, this is proving to be an extremely comprehensive learning experience. Baybutt notes that the project requires a variety of skills including public speaking, public relations, project management and team organization as well as immediate practical application of what he learns in engineering classes.

Josh Joseph, fourth-year mechanical engineering major, joined the G-CART effort this fall following a co-op at Marotta Controls in New Jersey.

"This is far more complicated than what I was doing in my co-op job," he says. "I have much more freedom. Of course, if we make our own mistakes, we have to fix them."

The team has moved into the second phase of the project, with the goal of making the Geo capable of following pre-planned routes. It will be equipped with sensors so the car can react to obstacles and terrain and actually
drive itself.

By March, the team must submit a video and supporting documentation to DARPA "to show we're competent enough to compete," explains Baybutt. DARPA will select 40 participants for the next challenge, scheduled for October 2005.

"I'm very confident," says Baybutt. "If we can get the funds and support, there's no doubt in my mind we can accomplish autonomous operation."

Hope floats
Civil Engineering Technology students stretch their imagination each year with the design and construction of a concrete canoe that floats ? and wins competitions sponsored by the American Society of Student Engineers.

Going the distance will take enormous amounts of time, passion and energy. In addition to carrying a full schedule of classes, it is not unusual for each team member to log 50 hours a week on the G-CART work. "I can't tell you how many times I've seen the sun rise from this lab," says Baybutt.

Even if they don't win the $2 million - even if they don't make it to the Mojave - the effort will have been worthwhile. "We're working on something that's never been done anywhere," says Baybutt.

Adds Karpoff, "Even in industry, this would be a rare opportunity."

Advisor Leonard says G-CART has already given the students "the ultimate reward. What do they get out of it? The ability to solve a problem."

For more information, visit
the Web at www.gcart.rit.edu.

The first project of RIT's Grand Challenge Autonomous Race Team - a.k.a. G-CART - was to convert a derelict 1991 Geo Storm into a remote-controlled vehicle. Members of team include, from left: Josh Joseph, Drew Stephens, Mark Baybutt, Chris Armenio, Phil Gurbacki, Greg Needel and Nate Pendleton.