Engineers put skills to the test in F1tenth autonomous challenge

Engineers put skills to the test in F1tenth autonomous challenge

By Scott Simmie


Want to win a scale model car race?

Normally you’d pimp your ride, slam the throttle to the max, and do your best at the steering control to overtake any opponents while staying on the track.

Now imagine a race where no one is controlling the car remotely. Where, in fact, the car is driving itself  – using sensors and algorithms to detect the course, avoid obstacles, and look continuously for the most efficient path to the finish line.

That’s the concept of F1TENTH, a regular competition held at major robotics conferences. The latest contest was carried out in Detroit at IROS 2023, the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems. The contest brings together researchers, engineers, and autonomous systems enthusiasts.

“It’s about Formula racing, but on a smaller scale – and it’s autonomous,” explains Hongrui (Billy) Zheng, a University of Pennsylvania PhD in electrical engineering, and a key organizer of the F1TENTH series.

And what does it take to win?

“I would say 90 per cent software, and 10 per cent hardware,” says Zheng.

And that means it’s more about brainpower than horsepower.

Before we dive in, check out one of the cars below:




To keep things truly competitive, all teams begin with the same basic platform. They can either build that platform, based on the build guides at, or purchase the platform. The price of the vehicle, which this year incorporated a 2D LiDAR unit (which makes up the bulk of the cost), is about $2500-$2800 US.

“I would say 60 per cent is spent on the LiDAR,” says Zheng. “Some teams use a camera only, and that drives it down to around $1000.”

So it’s a lot more accessible – and a lot safer – than real Formula 1. And instead of high octane fuel, the teams are more concerned with powerful algorithms.

Once again, the basic Open-source Robot Operating System autonomy and obstacle avoidance software is part of the basic package that all teams start out with. But just as real F1 teams work together to extract every ounce of performance, so too do the F1TENTH teams, which usually represent universities but are occasionally sponsored by companies. At this year’s competition six of the nine teams were from universities.

The F1TENTH organization says there are four pillars to its overall mission. Here they are, taken directly:

1. Build – We designed and maintain the F1TENTH Autonomous Vehicle System, a powerful and versatile open-source platform for autonomous systems research and education.

2. Learn – We create courses that teach the foundations of autonomy but also emphasize the analytical skills to recognize and reason about situations with moral content in the design of autonomous.

3. Race – We bring our international community together by holding a number of autonomous race car competitions each year where teams from all around the world gather to compete.

4. Research – Our platform is powerful and versatile enough to be used for a variety of research that includes and is not limited to autonomous racing, reinforcement learning, robotics, communication systems, and much more.

In other words, there are real-world applications to all of this. Plus, for engineers, it’s not that difficult to dive in.

“The entire project is Open Source,” explains competitor Po-Jen Wang, a computer engineer from the University of California Santa Cruz. “It uses a Jetson Xavier (for compute). And for perception it uses a Hokuyo 2D LiDAR. Some people will mount a camera for computer vision. You can make it by yourself – it’s very easy to make.”

The following video provides a good introduction to the competition. In actual races, a piece of cardboard – sometimes modified for aerodynamics – is affixed to the rear of the car. These are to aid other vehicles on the track with obstacle avoidance.




Okay. So you’ve got your basic build, along with the basic ROS software.

Now it’s time to get to work. Engineers will add or modify algorithms for obstacle avoidance, acceleration, braking – as well as for determining the most efficient and optimal path. Depending on their approach, some teams will plot waypoints for the specific course.

Of course, like a real F1 race, a lot of modifications take place once teams are at the track. But in the case of F1tenth, those alterations tend to be code (though we’ll get to mechanical changes in a moment). Of course, scrolling through endless lines of programming isn’t the most efficient way to detect and eliminate bugs or improve efficiency. This is particularly true since multiple types of software are involved.

“There is software for SLAM (Simultaneous Localization and Mapping) for the mapping part, there’s software for localisation, there’s software for basic tracking if you give it a waypoint,” says organizer Billy Zheng. “Some of the basic drivers are found in a repository on Github.

“Most of the good teams are very consistent, and most of the consistent ones use mappingand localisation. The second place winner this year was using a reactive method – you just drop it and it will work.”

With all those moving parts, many teams use a dashboard that displays multiple parameters in real-time as the car moves down the track. This allows them to more rapidly nail down areas where performance can be optimised.

“The good teams usually have a better visualisation setup, so it’s easier to debug what’s going on,” adds Zheng. “The good teams are using Foxglove – a spinoff from an autonomous driving company that created a dashboard for ROS.”

To get a better idea of what the engineers are seeing trackside, here’s a look at Foxglove in action during F1TENTH.



Though it’s 90 per cent about code, that’s not all.

“Some modify their vehicles in different ways, maybe make it more aerodynamic, change the wheels,” explains competitor Tejas Agarwal, a graduate of uPenn with a Masters in Robotics. Agarwal and Po-Jen Wang were both contracted by Japanese self-driving software company/foundation Autoware.

(As it turned out, Wang and Agarwal placed second and third, respectively.)

The wheels on the stock vehicles are more suited to pavement and dirt rather than indoors tracks, so wheels are a common modification. But this year’s winning team, from Université Laval, took it further.

“We lowered the centre of mass as much as possible, changed the wheels, and changed our motor for better control,” says Laval team leader Jean-Michel Fortin, a PhD student in computer science specialising in robotics.

Of course, they weren’t allowed to increase the power of the motor in order to keep things on an even playing field. But they wanted one that offered greater control at lower speeds.

“Usually at low speeds the (stock) motor is bad, so we changed that for a sensor equipped motor,” says Fortin.

“We also replaced our suspension because it was too soft. As soon as we were braking our LiDAR wasn’t seeing what it should. For the software part, we tuned everything to the maximum that we could. We also optimised the race line to make sure the race line that we predict is as close to what the car can do as possible.”

And it paid off. The Laval team, pictured below, was clearly in a celebratory mood after winning (Jean-Michel Fortin in centre). Following is second-place winner Po-Jen Wang, third-place winner Tejas Agarwal and organizer Billy Zheng.


Laval F1tenth
Po-Jen F1tenth
Billy F1tenth



Competitions – particularly ones like this one – are highly useful. They foster collaborative teams and encourage innovative thinking. Plus, they’re just plain fun.

“F1TENTH is a tremendous initiative and a really great challenge for young engineers and autonomy enthusiasts,” says InDro Robotics CEO Philip Reece. “Those participating today could well be leaders in the autonomy sector tomorrow. We congratulate all who took part, with a special nod to the top three. Well done!”

Is there a similar engineering challenge you think is worth some words from us? Feel free to contact InDro’s Chief of Content Scott Simmie here.

And, if you’re a competitor beginning a job search, feel free to drop us a line with your resume here. InDro Robotics is Canada’s leading R&D aerial and ground robotics company and in a current phase of scaling. We’re always on the lookout to expand our talented and diverse engineering team.

Indro Robotics takes in IROS 2023 in Detroit

Indro Robotics takes in IROS 2023 in Detroit

By Scott Simmie


One of the most important gatherings in the field of robotics is underway in Detroit.

It’s the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, or IROS 2023. And InDro Robotics is there.

“IROS is kind of an open forum to discuss research in the fields of mobile robotics, manipulation and so much more,” says Account Executive Luke Corbeth. “It gives researchers the ability to collaborate with each other, as well as industry, through the exhibits.”

Or, as the conference describes itself: “IROS is a large and impactful forum for the international robotics research community to explore the frontier of science and technology in intelligent robots and smart machines, emphasising future directions and the latest approaches, designs and outcomes.”

There’s plenty to see (and learn). You’ll find robotic arms and hands – some with incredible dexterity. There are quadrupeds, bipeds, specialised sensors – even a race course where teams put small but fast autonomous racers against one another. Plus, of course, scores of seminars and poster exhibits highlighting new and important research in fields ranging from AI to remote microsurgery.

“Everyone who is working on the cutting edge of robotics comes to IROS to present their research,” says Corbeth.

Some of the best minds in the field – including Masters and PhD students from many parts of the world – come to learn, network and share. Even Amazon is here, specifically to hire people to design, build and operate new robots for its warehouses. So too is the Honda Research Institute.



Though IROS stands for Intelligent Robots and Systems, “ROS” has another relevant meaning. In the industry, it stands for Robot Operating System. As describes it, ROS “is a set of software libraries and tools that help you build robot applications.”

These libraries and developer tools include state-of-the-art Open Source algorithms that are shared with developers around the planet. The original toolkit is known as ROS1, while the newer ROS2 has more robust security protocols and is being embraced at the corporate and industrial levels.

“Generally what is being built here is being built on ROS,” explains InDro Vice President Peter King. He goes on to explain that you can think of ROS as a facilitator that brings all the different parts of a robot – including different sensors and coding – together.

“ROS is language-agnostic,” says King. “You can bring in Python, you can bring in C++, you can bring in other sensors. ROS allows all of the packages to talk to each other.”

In some ways, that’s also what InDro Robotics does. As both a research and development company and an integrator, InDro frequently brings together disparate parts for a common purpose – most often, for special projects for clients.

“Everybody here is actually the perfect client for InDro,” says King. 

“Imagine you were studying autonomy and perception and you’re going to do this in ROS. These students and universities don’t have the budget or hardware or time to build what they need. So we can build a custom robot, generally outfitted with InDro Commander, so they can focus on simply coding their project.”

“It’s a very big international community – which I was not expecting,” adds Account Executive Amanda Gloor. “Plus, it’s great to see people showcasing technology from all over the world. One of the cooler things I saw was a robot that climbs storage tanks using magnets – then uses non-destructive testing to detect corrosion.”

Below: InDro Account Executive Amanda Gloor gets the Unitree GO2, which InDro distributes, to take a leap



If you’ve got the time (and the brains), the rotating poster exhibits are fascinating to dip into. There are some 1200 exhibitors either displaying their research or holding seminars. Some of that research could be the Next Big Thing, or a significant incremental advance that will be utilised in other applications.

A quick spin through just a few of the exhibits, during a session devoted to healthcare, revealed the following topics:

  • A shared autonomous nursing robot assistant with dynamic workspace for versatile mobile manipulation
  • Magnetic, modular, undulatory robot: Exploring fish-inspired swimming for advanced underwater locomotion and robotics
  • Contactless weight estimation of human body and body parts for safe robotics-assisted casualty extraction

As you can see, some are highly specialised. Now think of hundreds (and hundreds) of such research papers, each making a small (or even large) contribution to pushing the robotics envelope. That’s IROS.

But while such important niche research was in abundance, there was also a sense that the Big Picture moving forward involves AI. While that’s always been a part of the robotics world, recent advances in artificial intelligence, machine learning and machine vision took centre stage. Many of the keynotes – and smaller learning sessions – focussed on AI.

Wednesday’s plenary session, for example, was “Merging Paths: The shared history and convergent future of AI and Robotics.” One of the keynotes was “Deep predictive learning in Robotics: Optimizing models for adaptive perception and action” – followed by: “Empowering robots with continuous space and time representations.” Those are in addition to scores of separate sessions during the conference with an emphasis on AI. 

Instead of robots simply being aware of their surroundings and tasks, we appear to be heading into a world where these machines more fully understand the world around them, and make decisions based on that understanding. And that feels like a very big deal.





There are always conferences going on in the robotics and UAV sectors. We could choose to attend all of them, but we tend to be selective.

For the academic and R&D world, IROS is the venue where we can learn about the latest cutting-edge research and technology – and display our own innovations (such as our new ROS-based indoor UAV, which has been gaining a lot of attention). So it’s good to be here again.

“The unique thing about InDro is our ability to have a conversation with virtually everyone at this conference,” says Luke Corbeth. “Given the scope of our work – whether it’s a new platform, or sensors, integration or production, there’s always some way we can be of value to those across the R&D community.”

It’s also a great place to meet the next generation of engineers and other specialists, some of whom may one day join the growing InDro team.