Hassled by “The Man”

I woke up late today after being awake all night yesterday. I stopped by Indigita and borrowed some boards from to use as backups in case we needed to redo any of the controllers. We probably wont need them though.

From there I got stuck in traffic and decided to reinstall Mac OS X while staring at brake lights. :-) This worked well and let me do half the install before I even got to El Segundo.

When I got there I ate some pizza and got everything installed and working again. I wrote some logging code so that on our next test run we would be logging all the data including LADAR to a bunch of log files so we can go back over them and peruse them at our leisure.

Apparently before I got there someone smoked the 24 volt controller that controls the braking valves. So we couldn’t play with the brakes. There was a nice new rack built into the car where we are going to put the RADAR windows computer and all the cords were cleaned up. It looks really nice!

Jim told us about some field nearby that had a big open area that we could drive around in to test the steering controller. Mike, Josh, and possibly a third person went ahead in another car to the field. Jim and I followed in the robot truck. Sadly the velocity sensor was messed up so we couldn’t play with velocity.

When we got to the field there was a police car waiting there. We pulled up into the field (which was fenced in but had the gate open and no “no tress-passing” sings posted) and 3 other cop cars pulled up and one blocked us from backing up. From there they asked Jim to exit the truck and he started talking to the officer in charge. I was told to stay in the car with the door closed. Josh was trying to explain to some other cops what we were doing but they either didn’t believe him or didn’t get it. Funny quote: “You sound like you are getting upset” said an officer to Josh. Josh talks loud an animated. :-)

One of the cops comes up to me and asks me to get out of the car. He asks if I have any knives or guns in the car (No I didn’t) and what we were doing. At this point I’m trying to think how to phrase “We’re attempting to make this massive truck drive on it’s own” in a non threatening manner. Then he asks me if I’m carrying “anything I shouldn’t be”. I inform him I’m not. He asks if I would let myself be searched then. This is a tricky question. I don’t really want to be searched and we haven’t actually done anything illegal so I could probably assert my rights and say, “no thank you”.

But of course I really don’t feel like making them mad and causing them to look for the minutest infraction to haul me in on, so I say, “ok”. As he searches all my pockets he’s making me hold my hands behind my back with my fingers interlocked and he’s grabbing my hands so I can’t move them. I identify everything he pulls out of my pockets (“That’s my cel phone”. “Those are my keys”. “Those are my dog walking bags” (puzzled look from him), “That’s my wallet”). He takes my wallet and flips through every page looking at all my cards. Now I’m slightly annoyed at the intrusion. “You scuba dive?” He asks. (“Yes, I’m certified though I haven’t dived lately”). I’m not sure why it is relevant or if he is just trying to make conversation. He pulls my drivers license out an gives it a thorough looking over. Though maybe it wasn’t so thorough because he doesn’t mention that it expired over a year ago. :-) He hands it back. Later I realize I was the only one to get searched. Apparently my long hair and goatee put me in the “don’t trust” category. Or possibly the “hippie druggie” category. Prejudiced buttheads. :-)

So then he and the others start quizzing Josh and I about why we would ever want to make a truck that drives itself. “Because it’s cool!” doesn’t seem to satisfy them. Why would DARPA want this? Josh mentions automated troop carriers for wars. The officer isn’t buying it (“So let me get this straight, you have a troop carrier full of men but no one driving it?”). We mention that future wars will be fought with many robotic machines (they already have flying autonomous vehicles). He asks us, “Just who is this war going to be with?” I can’t help laughing at that and respond, “Well, I don’t really get to make those decisions.” Josh adds, “I think congress decides that.” This exchange elicits laughter from everyone within earshot except for the police officers. Maybe I just didn’t get the aim of the question.

I noted at this point that some of the cops seemed to be younger than me. When did that happen?

So at last, after explaining what we were doing and reiterating the trucks myriad safety features (manual overrides and kill switches galore), the police decided that we can’t use the field despite there being no signs saying we can’t. The fact that there is a gate seems to be the main sticking point, even though it is wide open. So they let us go and we drive off in search of large parking lots to test the steering controller.

But we can’t find a large parking lot so Jim and I end up testing steering on a 2 lane deserted road. I have to type “sr5″ or “sr-5″ to set the desired steering angle to 5 and -5 degrees respectively. I end up driving the truck from the passengers seat trying to drive in a straight line but actually making wide arcs across 2 lanes and growing more and more out of control. But we decide that the actual control loop is working well and we don’t really need to test it any more.

We tested gps waypoint following next. I had to put in some code to log the inner workings of the way-point following control code, and we pretty much drove around and tried to figure out if it was getting the right kind of data. After that we went back to the home base.

So Josh and Mike called us from the “tail car” and reported something very strange. They saw some well dressed man in a black car parked on the side of the road taking notes and looking around. Then all of a sudden a huge convoy of black secret service looking cars came down the road flanking a huge flat bed truck with “something that looked like a nuclear missile” on top. This sped up Sepulveda blvd towards LAX. Very interesting!

When we got back I copied some of the logs from the drive to my laptop, helped Richard check in his path code and decided to call it a night.

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