| Cool Alumni: Anthony Levandowski, inventor of the self-driving motorcycle
by David Pescovitz
With a name like Ghostrider, Anthony Levandowski's custom motorcycle sounds like it zoomed out of a 1950s biker movie. But the name actually suits the two-wheeler to a T. That's because Ghostrider is a robocycle with no rider: it drives itself.
Levandowski (M.S.'03 IEOR) has spent two years leading a full-time effort to build the first autonomous two-wheeled vehicle. The payoff could be huge. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has offered $2 million to the team that builds an autonomous vehicle to successfully navigate from Los Angeles to Las Vegas in the shortest time during a field test.
When Levandowski first heard about the DARPA race, dubbed the Grand Challenge, he suspected that all of the teams would likely be modifying Hummers, jeeps, and trucks to go the distance without any human intervention.
"For the battlefield applications that interest DARPA, two-wheeled vehicles are easier to maneuver in tight places and can go faster," Levandowski says. "Of course, the idea of a motorcycle without a rider is pretty cool too."
With assistance from a handful of dedicated UC Berkeley students and supportive faculty, Levandowski went to work rolling out the robobike. Thanks to sponsors like Agilent Technologies, Advanced Micro Devices, Crossbow Technology, and Raytheon Company, he's spent less than $150,000 on the project. The vehicle is tricked out with myriad sensors that constantly feed real-world data to Levandowski's balancing algorithms running on the onboard computer. Gyros and precise steering control keeps the bike from tipping. Meanwhile, two video cameras act as Ghostrider's eyes on the road ahead.
On race day, the route is provided only two hours before the event begins. During the first Grand Challenge last year, none of the teams, from the likes of Caltech, Carnegie Mellon, and engineers with Israeli defense contractor Elbit Operations, even came close to finishing the course. Carnegie Mellon's converted Hummer went the furthest - eight miles - before it got stuck on the roadside berm. Technical problems kept the first Ghostrider from making it out of the starting gate.
Even on its best day, the first Ghostrider, built in Levandowski's garage, went barely 30 yards before toppling. Still, Levandowski is optimistic that he and his crew, dubbed the Blue Team, will make a far better showing this year. The updated bike recently raced alongside a car at speeds of more than 35 miles per hour and has traveled 20 miles without human intervention. Now, inside the unofficial Blue Team lab space on campus, Levandowski and his crew are fine-tuning an entirely new model, rewired and ready for the big race.
In June, the Blue Team was one of 40 groups to advance to the semifinals, a competition at the California Speedway at the end of September. There, 20 vehicles will be selected to line up in the desert for the Grand Challenge on October 8.
"Winning is not our first objective," says Levandowski. "Our real goal is to deliver innovation. And if you measure success by the amount of innovation per dollar, I think we're pretty far ahead."
Blue Team's Ghostrider Robot
"Balancing Act: Test Engineer of the Year Anthony Levandowski teaches his bike to ride itself" by Rick Nelson (Test and Measurement World, 3/1/2005)
DARPA Grand Challenge '05
"At 22, Anthony Levandowski is already a veteran businessman" by Bonnie Powell (UC Berkeley Public Affairs, 13 February 2003)
"Lego Robot Passes Go, Collects Prize" by David Pescovitz (Lab Notes, October 2001)
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