Robots in disguise: competing to create a self driving car

self driving car

High-level software development isn’t Michael Pearson’s thing. He’s into robotics, particularly where software meets hardware. He has competed in New Zealand’s National Instruments Autonomous Robotics Competition every year of his Bachelor of Software Engineering degree as part of the Victoria University of Wellington’s team – even though it’s not strictly part of his degree. “A lot of the robotics we do is controlling the motors, and making sure that it’s connected correctly, and that’s the stuff I really enjoy,” says Pearson. Now he’s part of a team creating a self driving car.

This year the challenge is to build a robot car to transport passengers (little cubes) from one position in an obstacle course to an end destination, while avoiding blocked roads and obeying speed limits. The team is provided with sensors and an onboard computer, but needs to design the software – including machine learning and artificial intelligence – so the self driving car can navigate its surroundings.

“There’s definitely an aspect of artificial intelligence in what we’re doing,” says Pearson. “At each step, the self driving car is trained to see how it’s doing and find the best solution it can within the time that it’s given. It’s exactly the same algorithm that’s used in order to train some of the cutting-edge artificial intelligence systems that are being used at Google and Microsoft.”

“I’ve always been interested in the artificial intelligence aspect and particularly how we can apply that sort of stuff to robotics,” says Pearson. While still at high school, Pearson took some university courses. “I did all my first 100 level comp papers in Year 12, and then I did a single comp paper in Year 13,” he says. Over the Year 12/Year 13 summer break, he also started working as a software developer at Wellington-based company Database Communications, a job which continued into his first year of university.

Pearson then got an internship at Trade Me – an internet auction website– in the summer of 2015, and has continued working there as a web developer for about eight hours a week during his university studies.

“The university is very close with the Summer of Tech program, which places students in internships,” says Pearson. “I got my Trade Me job through the Summer of Tech program, and through that I’ve obviously grown and learnt a lot about how industry works and how the tools that we’re learning at university are used in industry.”

While Victoria offers a number of undergraduate degree majors in engineering and computer science – including Software Engineering, Electronic and Computer Systems Engineering, Computer Graphics, and Computer Science – changes are afoot. For example, a new degree major in Cybersecurity Engineering will be on offer in 2018, subject to regulatory approval. 

Pearson feels there are some distinct advantages to studying at Victoria. One is that it is easy to approach both students and lecturers at Victoria. “At Vic, there’s always the opportunity to meet people who are at the same level as you and want to work together and collaborate. I think they’ve got that balance right.”

– Ruth Beran

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Heather Catchpole

Author: Heather Catchpole

Heather co-founded Careers with STEM publisher Refraction Media. She loves storytelling, Asian food & dogs and has reported on science stories from live volcanoes and fossil digs


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