Buy Or Build An Autonomous Race Car To Take The Checkered Flag

Putting autonomous vehicles on public roads takes major resources beyond most of our means. But we can explore all the same general concepts at a smaller scale by modifying remote-control toy cars, limited only by our individual budgets and skill levels. For those of us whose interest and expertise lie in software, Amazon Web Services just launched AWS DeepRacer: a complete package for exploring machine learning on autonomous vehicles.

At a hardware level, the spec sheet makes it sound like they’ve bolted their AWS DeepLens machine vision computer on an 1/18th scale monster truck chassis. But the hardware is only the tip of the iceberg. The software behind DeepRacer is AWS RoboMaker, a set of tools for applying AWS to robot development. Everything from running digital simulations on AWS to training neural networks on AWS. Don’t know enough about machine learning? No problem! Amazon has also just opened up their internal training curriculum to the world. And to encourage participation, Amazon is running a DeepRacer League with races taking place both digitally online and physically at AWS Summit events around the world. They’ve certainly offered us a full plate at their re:Invent conference this week.

But maybe someone prefers not to use Amazon, or prefer to build their own hardware, or run their own competitions. Fortunately, Amazon is not the only game in town, merely the latest entry in an existing field. The DeepRacer’s League’s predecessor was the Robocar Rally, and the DeepRacer itself follows the Donkey Car. A do-it-yourself autonomous racing platform we first saw at Bay Area Maker Faire 2017, Donkey Car has since built up its documentation and software tools including a simulator. The default Donkey Car code is fairly specific to the car, but builders are certainly free to use something more general like the open source Robot Operating System and Gazebo robot simulator. (Which is what AWS RoboMaker builds on.)

So if the goal is to start racing little autonomous cars, we have options to buy pre-built hardware or enjoy the flexibility of building our own. Either way, it’s just another example of why this is a great time to get into neural networks, with or without companies like Amazon devising ways to earn our money. Of course, this isn’t the only Amazon project trying to build a business around an idea explored by an existing open source project. We had just talked about their AWS Ground Station offering which covers similar ground (sky?) as our 2014 Hackaday Prize winner SatNOGS.

Self-Driving RC Cars with TensorFlow; Raspberry Pi or MacBook Onboard

You might think that you do not have what it takes to build a self-driving car, but you’re wrong. The mistake you’ve made is assuming that you’ll be controlling a two-ton death machine. Instead, you can give it a shot without the danger and on a relatively light budget. [Otavio] and [Will] got into self-driving vehicles using radio controlled (RC) cars.

[Otavio] slapped a MacBook Pro on an RC car to do the heavy lifting and called it carputer. The computer reads Hall effect sensor data from the motor to establish distance traveled (this can be used to calculate speed) and watches the stream from a webcam perched on the chassis. These two sources are fed into a neural network using TensorFlow. You train the system by driving the vehicle manually through the course a few times and then let it drive itself.

In the video interview below, you get a look at the car and [Otavio] gives commentary on how the system works as we see playback of a few races, including the Sparkfun 2016 Autonomous Vehicle Competition. I apologize for the poor audio, they lost the booth lottery and were next door to an incredibly noisy robot band (video proof) so we were basically shouting at each other. But I think you’ll agree it’s worth it to get a look at the races. Continue reading “Self-Driving RC Cars with TensorFlow; Raspberry Pi or MacBook Onboard”