Designing Autonomous Race Car Models for Learning Advanced Topics in Hard Real-Time System

Designing Autonomous Race Car Models for Learning Advanced Topics in Hard Real-Time System

Enea Bagalini (Politecnico di Torino, Torino, Italy) and Massimo Violante (Politecnico di Torino, Torino, Italy)
Copyright: © 2015 |Pages: 22
DOI: 10.4018/IJRAT.2015010101
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The purpose of this chapter is to illustrate the design challenge that teams of graduate students are facing, and the solutions they devised, to develop autonomous vehicles for the worldwide speed race competition known as The Freescale Cup. The purpose of the competition is to design the fastest car able to complete an unknown racetrack autonomously. The challenge posed by the competition is an ideal teaching ground for engineering students that can improve with a working experience the theoretical aspects learned in class in different fields such as hard-real-time system theory, control theory, model-based design theory, and computer vision theory. Besides the technical aspects, as cars are developed by teams of students, the competition is also supporting the development of soft skills (such as team work, and communication skills) that are not normally addressed by classical curricula. The results achieved after three years of participation suggest that this approach is very effective in improving the quality of engineering curricula.
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The curricula in computer, electronic and mechatronic engineering at Politecnico di Torino, Italy, cover a number of topics ranging from basic of circuit theory up to advanced topics such as model-based software design. Each topic is presented through formal lectures to introduce the theory as well as classes focused on exercises and on laboratory experiences to put the theory at work. At the end of each teaching period the students have to take exams to assess their understanding of the subjects covered in the classes, and possibly deliver thematic assignments on the subjects of the classes.

Although effective in transferring the knowledge on specific subjects, the curricula fall short in providing a holistic approach to the analysis and design of complex system. Indeed, the curricula seldom stimulate students with challenges that require multidisciplinary competencies, that require teamwork, and that mandate the cooperation of students with heterogeneous background (e.g., students from computer engineering mixed with students of electronics engineering and of mechatronic engineering). As a result, although valuable for transferring knowledge on specific subjects, the curricula may be ineffective in preparing new graduates the type of work that they will face when exiting the University.

To address the abovementioned problem, in the past three years Politecnico di Torino experimented a game-based teaching approach that consists in challenging students with a complex goal that can be achieved only by combining multidisciplinary know-how and teamwork that takes inspiration from similar experiences that will be illustrated later in the Related work section.

The game-based approach is having a great success given the growing number of students who apply to be part of the competition and attend courses connected to these topics. Students, through social media and word of mouth with colleagues, are aware of the project and are attracted to what their friends have managed to achieve and not by the theory that hides behind. Once they join the team, the students themselves want to deepen the technical aspects to improve the result obtained by their colleagues, sometimes rediscovering notions shown in some academic courses which they were not interested in, simply because they could not see a practical use of what they were learning. As raised by Graham (1983) and noted by Peterson and Feisel (2002), “The need for a better understanding of the teaching/ learning process in the laboratory is evident… A more probable situation is that we have been working on the wrong problem, concentrating on “what” (goals, specific experiments, etc.), “how” (equipment setup, data acquisition, etc.), rather than “why” (an understanding of learning through the experience)” (as cited in Rover, 2008, p. 400).

Moreover, given the modularity of the project, advisors can split it in smaller assignments offering something more exciting than, for instance, lightening up an LED or programming registers whose effect can only be assessed using a debugger, and that in fact does not produce any tangible result (Rover, Mercado, Zhang, Shelley, & Helvick, 1988).

The competition consists in building autonomous race vehicles to participate to the international competition known as The Freescale Cup that according to Freescale (2014), “is a global competition where student teams build, program, and race a model car around a track for speed. The fastest car to complete the track without derailing, wins”.

To develop successfully a vehicle for the competition, the students must put at work the following skills:

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