Irish engineering students have made their own self-driving car

31 May 2016

Pictured from left are: James Whelan, WIT Automotive Lecturer, Mark Ormsby, Castledermot, Co Kildare, Micheal Wall, Ballinamult, Co Waterford, Jenny Ball, Tramore, Adrian Cunningham, WIT Automotive Lecturer, Adrian Skowron, New Ross, Mark Dungan, Mullinavat, Mark MacManus, Waterford City, Shane Shortiss, Carrick on Suir, James Doughty, New Ross, Jason Berry, WIT Electronic Engineering Lecturer. Photo: Ann Power

Move over Google, pull in Uber, eat some dust Tesla – engineering students at the robotics lab at Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) in Ireland have created their own self-driving car.

The eight students at WIT’s Applied Robotics Lab converted a Toyota Corolla into a self-driving robotic car.

After just 12 weeks of working on the project, students on the one-year BEng in Electronic Engineering, an add-on course for the two-year Higher Certificate in Electronic Engineering, had a Toyota Corolla safely finish a test drive on the institute’s Cork Road campus.

‘The project is the bread and butter of what any engineer is all about – figuring stuff out for yourself’

The students are part of the WIT School of Engineering Applied Electronics Stream, a study pathway that allows a student to get an honours degree in Applied Electronics without the prerequisite of having sat higher-level maths at Leaving Certificate level.

How the self-driving car was developed

To enable the car to ‘see’, the engineering students used a simple web camera and computer vision software that locates the road in the picture.

Then the vision systems software decides if a go, turn or stop command is required.

The vision team, made up of James Doughty and Shane Shortiss, then added CAN bus commands to send out these messages to the other teams involved in the design.

The acceleration systems team, comprised of Adrian Skowron and Mark Ormsby, then take the go message and convert it into an accelerator command.

The students designed and then built electronics that sends a voltage to the car’s engine management system.

This voltage is interpreted by the car’s engine management system as a press on the accelerator and so increases the revs of the car.

The steering control systems team, comprised of Michael Wall and Jenny Ball, looked at a couple of options on this, including autonomous tractor technology used on farms and a Prius car, which was the car used for the first iteration of the Google car.

The team then brought their work to Adrian Cunningham, an automotive lecturer in the Department of Engineering Technology at WIT, he brought the project to the attention of the Auto Mechanics Lab at WIT, which then decided to use the inbuilt power steering already in most cars.

The auto mechanics team then designed electronics to inject voltage into the car management system to make it think someone is trying to turn the steering wheel and the car’s power steering kicks in to turn the wheel.

The braking team of Mark MacManus and Mark Dungan used a heavy-duty Servo motor to physically push and pull the brake pedal.

The team designed and built the electronic systems to interface the CAN bus message for stop received from the vision system to the physical braking system.

It was during the building and mounting of the braking system that the team was introduced to James Whelan, another automotive lecturer, who joined the team and contributed to project safety and car wire looms.

Build it and they will drive

“Achieving the ‘White Board to Self Drive Car’ project in 12 weeks, eight WIT Electronic Engineering students have proven that anything is possible, if you keep moving forward,” said lecturer Jason Berry, the lead engineer in WIT’s Applied Robotics Lab (ARL).

“The project is the bread and butter of what any engineer is all about – figuring stuff out for yourself. Third year is a big transition for our students into the world of self-learning.”

Berry’s advice for school leavers and college applicants impressed by this project and who want to know if they would be suited to a future in electronic engineering to get in contact with WIT staff.

“People can get in touch through the individual course pages. You can come in and have a look around at WIT, there is always a warm welcome in WIT Applied Robotics Lab.”

There are also ways of learning about electronics from home.

“Get yourself an Arduino board and play with it right now, they are very cheap and there are loads of cool projects on the web. If you like the projects, who knows, you might be onto something.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years