Haven't paid attention to the $parkfun autonomous vehicle competition, manely because the announcements come up so far ahead of time, it makes you feel aging faster than you really are.  Was thinking about how a dead simple tricopter could win it, when I saw all VTOL was banned & there continued to be no altitude limit, despite rumors there would be.
Was going to say a dead simple quad copter with downward facing optical flow & sonar for stability & a gimbaled camera for position sensing could do it in the lowest altitude.  It would scan blobs for the edge of the building & follow it around.
There's not much to a fixed wing solution besides going high enough to get GPS, having the best GPS available, having fully articulated control surfaces & enough power to do it as fast as possible.
There might be an advantage in a fixed wing specifically designed for speed, short flight time, & right turns.  It would have a large vertical control surface, small wings, & a big motor.
Flying vehicles of any kind, in such a confined space, near all those cars, look too dangerous for them to continue.  Even if they're allowed, it would be no fun to hit a car or a head.
A ground vehicle would still be amusing, if not winnable.  A ground vehicle actually finished faster than the air vehicles.  A competitive speed could be reached, with big enough wheels.  A system using machine vision could be devised to plan a route ahead of time, then execute it using encoders. 
The obstacles were placed in such a way that they could be avoided, merely by using a good enough GPS.  
The dead simplest approach would be to manually drive around the building, recording all the distances & turns with encoders.  Then play it back as fast as possible.  The next step would be manually driving, with simple visual cues to aid the encoders.

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Comment by Sgt Ric on June 25, 2012 at 3:36pm

Good ideas for next year!

If it involves machine vision, you're certainly the go to person for that.

It would be great to see you field an entry.

 

Comment by Jack Crossfire on June 25, 2012 at 3:42pm

Sadly, no budget, but it was amusing to wonder how it could be done.

Comment by Seth on June 25, 2012 at 4:16pm

Why a large vertical stabilizer and small wings?

Comment by Paul Mather on June 26, 2012 at 9:14am

From my trip last year, I found that the air vehicles had a huge disadvantage over the ground vehicles. I believe your time started when you crossed the start/finish and ended when you "landed" not just crossed the start/finish again. It was a dangerous situation with buildings, cars and pedestians everywhere (see Chris Anderson's crash into a baby stroller - empty at the time). The simplest and winning approach was indeed encoders on the wheels. The downside was the change in temperature appeared to cause havoc on their sensors (but I don't know why) as it went from snow on the ground in the morning to 60's in the afternoon. So there was one guy that probably did 50 test runs around the building and I believe was the cause for the "no test run" policy this year. After every heat, there he was, launching his car, running around the building, grabbing his car, back to the tent to tweak.

 

I think Sparkfun needs a new location for this even if they want to keep flying vehicles (and I'm not sure they do). With the horrible GPS reception and the big cell tower booster on the side of the building, in a year or so, it will become the Sparkfun encoder competition. But the event is as much a marketing campaign & open house as it is a UAV competition....so they're not likely to change venues. The encoder guys will continue to get faster and faster and it will have all the excitement of the toy cars at Walmart where you can pre-program how many times it goes forward and then it turns and then goes forward and then turns....only they'll be doing it at 35MPH which will make for spectacular crashes. I think they should add a gravel patch after the first turn which will completely eliminate all the encoder teams....

 

Novel, yes, practical, no. Nice people, good time, not much of a competition.

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