Helicopter carrying crew filming driverless Audi test run crashes on Pikes Peak, injuring 3

Friday, September 17, 2010

Helicopter filming Audi test crashes on Pikes Peak

DENVER — A helicopter filming a driverless Audi on a test run crashed Friday about a mile below the summit of Pikes Peak, injuring the four people onboard, the sheriff’s office said.

The crash happened sometime before 7:30 a.m., a few yards from the winding roadway leading to the top of the mountain, which is about 14,110 feet above sea level. El Paso County sheriff’s spokeswoman Teresa Murphy said the four people aboard the helicopter had been released from the hospital by Friday afternoon.

Murphy said the cause of the crash is unknown and that the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board will lead the investigation.

Brad Stertz, a spokesman for German automaker Audi, said the helicopter was carrying a crew that was filming a driverless Audi on the road to the mountain’s summit. He said Friday’s test drive was part of a project with Stanford University, which helped create the technology for the driverless vehicle, named “Shelley,” the only one of its kind.

The car is designed to drive a “pretty complicated route” without a driver, Stertz said. He said the purpose of the filming was a documentary effort to show how the car maneuvers. Audi has videos posted on its website of the car driving itself in other test locations.

FAA spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the helicopter flew from Centennial Airport in the south Denver area to Pikes Peak. Stertz said the pilot was James Dirker, president of the Englewood, Colo.-based AirCam National Helicopter Services Inc. A man who answered the phone at the company’s number but declined to give his name said Dirker was doing fine.

Stanford spokesman Dan Stober said the automaker hired the film crew and that no one from the university was among those injured. Stertz said the car, which was not involved in the accident, was near the summit and the helicopter was trailing it at some distance when the aircraft crashed.

Stober said the aim of the project is to develop autonomous cars that can sense what’s around them and avoid accidents.

“The ultimate goal is to make technology like this be available in ordinary cars,” he said.

A February news release from the university describing the project said the car’s trunk would be packed with computers and GPS receivers so it could drive itself. The news release said the car would be driving at racing speeds up Pikes Peak, but Stober said the car was being operated under “moderate speeds” Friday.

Stertz said Audi is suspending work at Pikes Peak while officials investigate but will continue research on the autonomous car.

Pikes Peak, about 60 miles south of Denver, is Colorado’s 31st-highest mountain. Its majestic views from the summit inspired Katherine Lee Bates in 1893 to write the lyrics to “America the Beautiful.”

It’s also the site of the annual Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, one of the country’s oldest auto races.

The helicopter crash prevented a cog rail from taking riders to the summit of the mountain Friday, according to a telephone recording for the Pikes Peak Cog Railway, which bills itself as the world’s highest cog train.

“Our trains are not able to go to the top today, due to an aircraft accident near the top of the mountain,” the recording says, adding the cogs were cleared to reach only 13,000 feet.

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