It's also about the track

TL;DR: Building a good track might be harder than it looks. You can get your own track printed at your local vendor using our CC licenced designs that can be found from Github.

While my colleague Mikko has been writing about the marvels of Donkeycar and fancy machine learning thingies, we should pay some respect also to all the different tracks we’ve built during our journey. Can you really train a car to drive if there’s no track? Believe me, the result would be chaos. CHAOS!

Since the car assembly (and occasional disintegration) happens mostly at our office, it was a no-brainer to build a a track inside the office premises as well. The office is located in an old factory building at the heart of Tampere and there luckily was enough “empty” space to enable us to proceed with our plan. While we had the space, we also have around 70 colleagues and a number of clients roaming the premises every day and not all of them might be too happy to have a 1:10 scale model of Monza on site that happens to run through their workspaces.

Also the office we have is pretty decent from the aesthetic point of view and drawing some mad chicanes on the floor with spray paint was ruled out of the question quite quickly. We had to find a way to cause minimum amount of property damage and also disturb the daily operations of our Futuriceans as little as possible.

Our initial plan was to buy a lot of fabric ribbon which could be removed easily and wouldn’t cause any permanent damage to the floor.

Ribbon trackThe first track maybe wasn’t magnificent but it was still a track

The ribbon worked perfectly. If you consider “We still have to tape it to the floor” and “It’s now impossible to vacuum the place” or “Damn I’m tripping over this thing” perfect. We did manage to build the first iteration (“The Nascar Oval”) and the second one (“Mario Circuit 1”) using it before our idea to utilise loose & narrow stuff was thrown in the trash.

Moving on to adhesives

To make cleaning the floor possible and also avoid the odd tripping incidents here and there, we decided to try building the track using an adhesive tape that had reasonable width to give something for the car to interpret while doing its maximum attack thing.

Protip: If the tape that has a text “clean removal” printed on it about a thousand times per meter, it isn’t (when left attached to a concrete floor for several weeks). We still have high hopes that the markings left from the glue residue will fade out in the coming months…

Clean removal tapeThe new tape was close to perfect compared to old ribbons

The tape did solve the floor cleaning issues, since you could vacuum and mop over the track without disrupting the cleaning work or damaging the track. Only problem was that it was quite permanent and wasn’t as visually pleasing as other people occupying the office would have liked it to be.

After a few iterations of tape tracks around our Stage, we started to think something bigger. It just happened that the floor below our office was empty and just waiting for us to build an even bigger track with no pedestrian traffic or other distractions our Markku might get bad influences from. Someone might say that having a 700 square meter loft in the middle of the city just for one RC car might be overkill but, you know, yolo. It gave us the possibility to shoot our Christmas greeting video!

We need more modularity

Unfortunately the loft we had acquired for training was actually just a vacant space waiting for renovation and we had to get out when the construction crew came in. We had to figure out something to use at the original location and also something that would be possible to setup and remove quickly when needed.

Luckily we knew a person, who knew another person, who could score us some wicked exhibition event floor mats discarded after the events and could be either thrown to garbage or given to us. So we got about 100 meters of it hauled into our office. Only after we received the goods we found out that it would be near impossible to paint anything on it, so that left us with… Tape. It kinda worked fine, but we also learned that the fabric was really difficult to roll back for storaging. It also had these clear bumps caused by the lengthy storage sessions. On the plus side, having a black matte color helped us with our reflection issues that we have been previously mitigating only with data augmentation.

Exhibition floor mat track2nd hand carpet taken into good use

We did manage to use the mat successfully during Tampere Data Science Meetup that took place in our office, but quite quickly we decided to get rid of the mat and replace it with something better.

Going pro

While our car project had already gotten a bit out of hand, it was going to get even more out of control. We will give some specifics in the upcoming post about “How to organize a race”, but let’s just say we needed to come up with a track that would be truly easy to setup and clean up after racing events. So, we decided to sit next to a guy who actually knows how to use Photoshop and he came up with a modular track design for us based on the “Fake it till you make it” miniature model shown below. Track would be built using 2 to 4 separate pieces that would form a small or large track depending on the setup and needs.

Modular design was battle-proven already before printed

We found an industrial canvas printing company that promised to get us our track in exchange for some (quite a bit) of money. The material we would get was the same kind of banner fabric that is used for outdoor advertisements and trucks, so it was very durable and could be rolled and unrolled easily while also avoiding the kind of bumps we saw in the previous mat. It can also be washed, which is a nice plus.

Official trackFresh track under testing at the first ever Finnish Robocar Meetup

This seems to be the apex of our track and seems to fit our needs quite well. After organizing several races in different places the only problems we have encountered are things like “How to get rid of champagne stains & stench after competitions”. The real issue with the solution might be the price, but luckily we don’t have to have too many of these laying around. Organizing meetups and races is now way easier!

Track can be configured for different spaces

Get your own track!

All our track designs have also been published under CC licence and can be found from Github, so go ahead and get yours printed at your local industrial printing partner!