Snoqualmie Valley Locals Doing Interesting Things: The Autonomous Indy Challenge

I don’t know about you, but my first recollection of autonomous (self-driving) cars is Herbie the Love Bug and Christine.

The definition of autonomous is things that function separately or independently. So, technically a supernatural murderous Plymouth Fury or a sentient Volkswagen Beetle count as examples but are relatively unsophisticated versions of what the future would bring.

From the 1990s until the present-day sovereign cars were the subject of fascination in movies and film. From the Johnnie Cab in Total Recall to the rideshare vehicle in Westworld, the self-driving car has captured the public’s imagination for years.

Sci-Fi fantasy cars have been becoming a reality for decades with the help of worldwide universities and engineers. A Seattle startup with a Valley connection is providing a core software component for an Autonomous Indy Challenge Team.

“The Indy Autonomous Challenge is a broadly collaborative effort that brings together public, private and academic institutions to challenge university students around the world to imagine, invent and prove a new generation of automated vehicle software and inspire the next generation of STEM talent.” [1]

Bellevue-based Gaia Platform, along with two of its Snoqualmie Valley employees, are working with AI Racing Tech and the University of Hawaii to support developing the team’s race decision engine on their Indy Autonomous Challenge racecar.

Valley resident Adrienne Munday has been with Gaia Platform for the last 3 years. Her role with the company is as office manager and as the Executive Assistant to the founders, Mehtap Mae Ozkan, David Vaskevitch and Hal Berenson.

Described as a den mother by some and the company’s backbone by others, she works hard in the background to keep things running smoothly.

Originally from Toronto, Canada, Munday moved to the Seattle Area with her son 29 years ago. When he moved to Renton in the Fairwood area for his first house, Munday landed in the Valley about three and half years ago.

She was a Bellevue resident but had many friends in the valley so Fall City was the obvious choice for her when it was time to leave the Eastside. Most of Adrienne’s family is still in Canada, including her 99-year-old mother whom she describes as her hero. Munday has a “really large and wonderful group of close friends who stand in for family in every way.”

Fresh out of college, Mark West drove through North Bend headed to a new job in Bremerton. An empty stomach caused him to stop, and he was instantly captivated by Mt. Si. West vowed someday he’d live near the mountain, and several years later, in 2002, he bought a house on the South Fork of the Snoqualmie River.

West, a former Principal Software Engineer with Microsoft, is a software developer at GAIA. Mark focuses primarily on software for robotics and autonomous devices, basically the stuff that lets machines wander around and perform missions without any human operators.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

According to Mark: “There are quite a few definitions of ‘robot’ out there; I prefer this one: ‘A robot is an autonomous machine capable of sensing its environment, carrying out computations to make decisions, and performing actions in the real world.’ [2]The word ‘autonomous’ is key here, in this context meaning that the machine can carry out tasks without a human operator.”

These tasks can vary in complexity from something simple like moving forward a meter to something complex like wandering around and finding a person in an unmapped environment. Robots can have many sensors which they use to ‘see’ their environment, for example, cameras and lasers.

“A big part of what I do involves turning that sensor data into mathematical structures that represent the real world, and then using those structures do things like drive around without colliding with something. If you see me at work, you might think I’m playing with a gizmo or a video game. Basically, I get to play with toys for a living.”

Mark is currently on location at Indianapolis working on a racer but can most often be found working in his lab at home in North Bend.

There are five rounds in the challenge. Teams submitted a short white paper during the first round. In the second round, teams demonstrated vehicular automation by sharing a short video of an existing vehicle or by participating in Purdue University’s self-driving go-kart competition at the Indianapolis Speedway.

The Indy Autonomous Challenge’s third round was a simulated race in which the top finishers were awarded $150,000 in prizes. Gaia Platforms team, AI Racing Tech, tied for seventh place overall and qualified to move on to the final round.

The fourth round allows teams to test their actual vehicles at the speedway in advance of the head-to-head race. The final round and inaugural running of the Indy Autonomous Challenge is currently scheduled for Oct. 23, 2021. 

This is the world’s first high-speed autonomous race, with 40 universities from around the world participating. The IAC includes a $1 million purse to the winning team, $250,000 for 2nd Place, along with additional prizes for winners of the hackathons and simulation races. 

[1] Indy Autonomous Challenge


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