Web Exclusives: On the Campus

December 12, 2007:

California letdown; strutting in New York

By Jocelyn Hanamirian ’08

A team of 20 undergraduates traveled to Victorville, Calif., at the end of October to watch the robotic car they engineered compete in the semifinals of the DARPA Urban Challenge, a Pentagon-sponsored contest to create a self-driving vehicle.

If their modified Ford Escape, dubbed Prospect 10, could complete a series of maneuvering challenges autonomously, they would have a shot at the finals and $3.5 million in prizes.

Though Prospect 10 failed to complete its tasks on the challenge course and did not advance to the final round, Princeton’s entry was still a success. As an all-undergraduate team with a $100,000 budget amid a pool of other contestants with heavy corporate sponsorship and professional know-how, it was a victory in itself to advance to the semifinal round as one of 35 teams from the 150 original entrants.

“Most teams had a lot more people who could dedicate more time to the project, while we had to balance class and other extracurriculars, and they also had a lot more money to buy better equipment,” said team member Ben Chen ’09. “Princeton was aiming for a low-cost approach.”

The team worked tirelessly on its modified Ford Escape throughout the summer and fall. There was rarely a moment that one member of the team was not tinkering away in the garage set up for the project by the engineering school. Prospect 10 was donated by Ford Motor Co., but the team lacked other major corporate sponsorships and had to forgo expensive sensors and high-accuracy GPS that other teams could afford, instead relying heavily on cameras to act as the car’s optical sense.

The course consisted of three missions over 60 miles in a simulated urban environment. Cars had to execute left turns, handle themselves in four-way intersections, follow lanes, and avoid obstacles, all surrounded by other traffic.

“We had not tested the car rigorously enough prior to arriving in California to ensure that all our systems were integrated and working smoothly,” Chen said. “Had we had more time on our hands prior to the competition to test our vehicle, we may have been able to make it to the finals.”

The determined team will not let its empty-handed return from California be the final word. They plan on competing in the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition, a robotics competition for undergraduates, held in June. And if department of motor vehicles officials allow, they might even program Prospect 10 to pass the New Jersey state driver’s license test.


By Isia Jasiewicz ’10

Usually, the distinctive orange and black of the Princeton University Band’s uniforms makes them stand out from the crowd. During their annual stint at New York’s Village Halloween Parade, however, they seemed to blend right in.

The band has been marching in the parade, which attracts more than 2 million people annually to Greenwich Village, for as long as present band members and recent alumni can remember. Band president Greg Snyder ’08 said the event is one of the highlights of the group’s season as well as its biggest opportunity for exposure, since the parade is broadcast on NY1 News.

“It’s always cool to be marching along and having millions of people see you,” said Snyder, a percussionist. “It’s certainly one of the events we most look forward to,” added the band’s alumni coordinator, Cindi Textor ’08, who plays trumpet.

It takes the band about three hours on Halloween night to weave its way up Sixth Avenue through throngs of people in costumes ranging from simple mask-wearers to transvestites. The students march in lines, occasionally breaking up and “scrambling” through the swarms of spectators.

Since the parade is one of few band events that isn’t Princeton-specific, its members try to cater their repertoire to a broader audience by playing Halloween-themed songs, like the “Time Warp” from The Rocky Horror Show, and by sprucing up their uniforms with Halloween details (one year, said Snyder, a student even carved out a pumpkin and wore it on his head as he marched).

The parade also attracts a small crowd of band alumni each year. This time around, half a dozen alums marched with the ensemble in the parade, said Textor. Former band president Ben Elias ’05, currently a graduate student at Columbia, brought out his clarinet to take part. “The band has a really good relationship with its alumni,” he said, “so I come back pretty often, and I’m not the only one.”

Elias said that the group has changed since he was a member: “Musically, they’re sounding better, and they’ve definitely grown bigger.” Textor added that the band has “cleaned up its act” since the ’80s and ’90s, taking on a more professional attitude and improving on its musicality. “Most of the feedback that I get from alumni is almost 100 percent positive,” she said.

Elias added that the special camaraderie among band alumni makes small reunions like the Village Halloween Parade particularly special. “I have good friends from classes of people who are 10 years old than me,” he said. “I don’t think many other groups have that connection.”

Photos by Hyunseok Shim ’08