By Eric Morath, The Detroit News

ANN ARBOR — At first glance, the 1996 Chrysler Town & Country minivan looks like your standard family hauler.

But then you notice the cameras and laser guidance systems mounted below the bumpers; the sensors and antenna fixed to the roof and the $20,000 worth of electronics and robotics installed inside.

And, as the van cruises Ann Arbor parking lots, you notice there is no driver at the wheel.

The souped-up, robot-controlled minivan is the brainchild of Cybernet Systems Corp., and it will compete next month at a unique military challenge where driverless, or autonomous, vehicles will navigate a simulated urban battle field.

The vehicles will be judged on their ability to complete missions in a city — including making U-turns, avoiding pedestrians and finding a parking spot — all without human interaction.

“We’ll test the ability of autonomous vehicles to operate in a mock urban area,” said DARPA spokeswoman Jan Walker. “They have to obey traffic laws just as vehicles with drivers would. Merge into traffic, go through intersections and navigate roundabouts.”

Team Cybernet is one of 36 finalists who will compete for the $2 million prize in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Urban Challenge in California. Its rivals will include Dearborn-based Intelligent Vehicle Systems, as well as teams from Stanford University, Princeton University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The goal of the challenge is to develop technology that can help the military move supplies through a cityscape battlefield without endangering soldiers’ lives.

This is the third such challenge from DARPA, the Defense Department’s technology research arm. For the last competition in 2005, teams were asked to build autonomous vehicles that could move at tactical speeds for long distances.

This year’s challenge is at the former George Air Force Base in Victorville, Calif., where the military practices urban warfare.

“A convoy moving through a city is a prime target for an attack from an improvised explosive,” said Steve Rowe, a software architect and co-leader of Team Cybernet.

“So this is potential life-saving technology.”

Team utilizes expertise
The Team Cybernet van uses an advanced Global Positioning System that calculates its location within 10 centimeters, and eight cameras and two laser guides that allow the vehicle to recognize obstacles in the roadway and even cross traffic. A computer program gives the van its course and objectives — such as move supplies from one post to another.

The vehicle is driven by a chain system to guide the steering wheel and actuators, which operate the accelerator and break pedals.

“This challenge combines many of our areas of expertise — sensors, computer vision and machine controls,” said Cybernet President Charles Jacobus. “It’s a good exercise for us to bring them together as a complete product.”

Advancing research
For the DARPA challenge, Dearborn’s Intelligent Vehicle Systems is building an autonomous Ford F-250 truck with team members from Ford Motor Co. and auto suppliers Honeywell International and Delphi Corp.

The team joined the challenge to advance its research of autonomous vehicles and look for ways that technology could be applied to passenger vehicles.

Teams from Michigan should demonstrate the state’s strength and potential in advanced vehicle engineering, said Lawrence Technological University professor CJ Chung. He and his students contributed small projects to Cybernet’s vehicle.

“This could be an area for job creation,” he said. “As an ultimate goal we should be leader in creating intelligent vehicles, not just military vehicles, but civilian vehicles.”

Today’s collision avoidance systems and self-parking cars could be just the tip of the guidance technology iceberg, he said.

Building a vehicle that drives itself is not without its bumps in the road. As a safety precaution, a member of Team Cybernet sits in the driver’s seat when the vehicle is operated on public roads — but sometimes the robotic van reacts slightly faster than the engineer.

During early development, a glitch caused the car to brake and accelerate at the same time. Before Cybernet’s Jacobus could hit the kill button, the transaxle was twisted.

“You get some looks at the repair shop when they see all the wires in the backseat,” he said. “I tell them, ‘Don’t worry about that, underneath it’s just a normal van.’ ”

As the last kinks are ironed out before the challenge, the 50-person Cybernet team is excited to take on the competition, Jacobus said. “This is our chance to prove to the world that we can do this.”

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