By Wenchao Liu
In 2004, an agency in the Defense Department decided to sponsor a competition, where self-driving cars would compete with each other in a dessert. Short for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was interested in the technology because they wanted to put it in their military vehicles. Many institutions participated in the competition, and none completed the course. In 2005, DARPA decided to sponsor the competition again, and this time, more teams completed the course. In 2006, DARPA decided to take a break, and came back in 2007, where teams were competing in an urban environment. This series of events eventually jump-started the self-driving car industry, and many participants are still living in the past and working on the technology.
Fast forward a decade to 2017, I was a happy college student at Lawrence with a newly-built wall-following RC car. During the course of my project, I often bought electronics from Sparkfun. One day I noticed that they were hosting an Autonomous Vehicle Competition, AVC in short. I decided to enter, and did not do well. Well, I did so badly that I didn’t even participate, because I knew my car wouldn’t go far. Some participants’ cars didn’t even spin at the start line, and I was wondering if they anticipated that. If they did, did they just want to show everyone that they had a car?
In the summer of 2018, I was working on an internship, and took a day off to participate the AVC again. It was their 10th year, and I definitely won the participation award. Well, I didn’t even win the participation award, because, again, I didn’t participate. Many teams, again, wanted to show that they had a car, although it wasn’t even spinning. I saw some new faces, and some familiar faces. I told myself that I would keep coming back.
The DARPA challenges gave birth to the self-driving car industry, and AVC inspired me to keep working on my RC car. One of the reasons that those competitions are so fun to me is that you can get to know people. There are other software competitions, but those competitions don’t require you to be physically present somewhere. Robotics competitions do!
There are many regional and national robotics competitions. If you want to find out what is happening in your area, just search on the Internet, especially on Meetup. Those happen mostly weekly or monthly. For instance, there’s a monthly robot RC car competition in Oakland. There are also national ones that happen annually. I mentioned the AVC earlier, which is in Denver. There is a similar one sponsored by University of Pennsylvania. If you want more variety of competitions, there is the National Robotics Challenge in Ohio. Whatever robot you are building, you should definitely try finding a competition, because you will meet interesting people and win at least the participation award!