CajunBot visits L. Leo Judice Montessori Elementary

February 4th, 2009

Today Dr. Arun Lakhotia and Mark McKelvy of Team CajunBot took the autonomous Jeep to L. Leo Judice Montessori Elementary. Waiting for them, were nearly 60 eager and bright 2nd graders curious to learn all about what the CajunBot is and how it works.

Dr. Lakhotia explained that using small steps, the team was able to build the robot that is capable of driving itself. Using engineers and scientists from different fields, the vehicle that drives itself became a reality. Many eager questions were asked by the kids too. From “how does the CajunBot know where to go?” to “how do they get the wires in there?”, the kids got to know more about what makes the CajunBot tick. Of course, they also wanted to know what kind of math problems it can solve and how well it can spell.

Check the CajunBot homepage photo gallery for pictures from today.

Team CajunBot happily hosts Team Acyut of BITS Pilani

June 30th, 2008

Two weekends ago – June 20 through June 22 – Team CajunBot was pleased to receive 5 talented guests. The guests were from BITS Pilani, a university in India. Samay, Prayag, Sushma, Arpit, and Harsh are the members of BITS Pilani’s Team Acyut, shown in the image below with Suresh and Mark of Team CajunBot, and Mark’s wife Josephine.

Team Acyut was in the US for the robotic competition “RoboGames” in which their humanoid robot participated.

On their way back home, the team paid a visit to Team CajunBot to share information and ideas, as well as a demo. Friday evening everyone socialized over a nice dinner complete with Labanese cuisine. Saturday was the big day, though, with four robotics demos. The first demo was given by Dr. Darby of the UL Engineering department. Dr. Darby showed everyone the UL Engineering line following robot as well as the videos of it in action:

After that, Team CajunBot put on a demo of their own, with CajunBot-II (or RaginBot if you prefer). Our demo was short and sweet, a little bit of intersection behavior, navigating around static obstacles, and convoy behavior just to show some of the capabilities. We were then able to see Murali Chakravarthi, a former member of Team CajunBot, demo his autonomous robotic spider. To wrap things up, Team Acyut showed off their robot’s dancing, walking, and balancing-on-one-leg abilities. All in all, it was a pretty sweet day:

Keeping on the move, however, Team Acyut flew out of Lafayette on Sunday to make a few more stops in the US before heading back to India. We hope to see them again.

President Authement, Thank You.

June 12th, 2008

Dear President Authement,

I write this letter with a deep sense of affection for you, an affection derived from the immense impact you have had on my life, second only to the impact of my parents.

It all started in December 2003, when on a whim my colleague Dr. Charles Cavanaugh and I decided that we wanted to participate in the DARPA Grand Challenge. The challenge sought to attract the best brains in robotics from around the world. In contrast the two of us had no experience in robotics. Charles and I went knocking on a lot of doors, trying to convince people that UL Lafayette ought to field a team in this challenge. By and large we were ridiculed for even thinking to compete with the Big Boys. We heard statements like “This challenge is for MIT and Stanford. We do not have the ability to compete in it.”

In January 2004 we learned that there was one person who was willing to bet on our effort. That person was “Doc.” And the bet was real, since “Doc” had also allocated $60,000 to the project.

Having “Doc”, the President of the University, stand behind us when all others were hesitating was an exhilarating experience. While all others were focused on the consequence of failure on the world stage, you were singularly focused on the immense benefit of competing with the big boys on the world stage.

The success of Team CajunBot can be attributed directly to your “hidden hand” behind us. The marvel of your “hidden hand” is the tremendous expertise that is available today on campus. As someone who knew nothing about robotics, I had to look for help in almost every area – mechanics, electronics, sensors, control systems, and what not. I have always been amazed that whenever I needed help I could find it within 100 meters of my office, right here on campus. And the help I have received has been world class. The incredible amount of talent on this campus did not happen by accident. Its a result of your vision, your leadership, and your “hidden hand.”

What you have done to Team CajunBot, I have learned you have done to others across campus. You have made the faculty and students believe in themselves. You have made us believe that we are second to none, that it is our time to perform on the world stage, and that should we fail you would still be in the bleachers cheering for us. Team CajunBot exemplifies what is happening in the splendid new buildings across campus. Every day I meet colleagues and students who are striving for multi-million dollar projects, competing for the monies with the best in the world. You can see it in their eyes and their voices that they not just have the confidence to dream, they also have the confidence to convince the world that they can deliver on their promise.

Your words after our return from the 2004 Grand Challenge are a great source of personal pride to me. You said that “Team CajunBot has put the university where it belonged, right at the top of engineering education.” It is that pride from your encouragement that continues my team and I to strive to for the top.

As you step into retirement, you are leaving behind a very confident university, a university that is ready to demand its share of history, a share it would not have attempted to claim without your vision.

We love you,

Sincerely,

Arun Lakhotia

Leader, Team CajunBot

Finalist 2004, DARPA Grand Challenge

Finalist 2005, DARPA Grand Challenge

Semifinalist 2007, DARPA Urban Challenge

In memory of Bob Trahan, our great supporter and admirer

February 28th, 2008

February 27, 2008. LAFAYETTE, LA.

Bob Trahan

Yesterday a great soul wished good-byes to the world. Robert Trahan passed away. I regret that the Team and I did not get the opportunity give him my last respects. I read about his funeral in today’s newspaper.

I just so much wished we had the opportunity to drive CajunBot-II in his procession. You see Robert made CajunBot-II possible. He contributed the bright Red Jeep Wrangler Rubicon. His love for the University ran very deep, and CajunBot-II will forever be a symbol of that love.

Robert really loved Team CajunBot. I felt his passion first hand when I visited him to convey my thanks for the Jeep. His love for the team, as also with any aspect of the university, was unconditional. He was just proud that we were willing to compete with the best in the world. It did not matter much to him whether we did not win the challenge. Notice I did not say ‘fail’. Its because our attempt was success enough for him. In his eyes we would have failed if we did not try. But that we did our best meant that we just did not win.

Its also probably a good time for me to share why I have insisted on using the name CajunBot-II, while the team prefers Ragin’Bot. It goes all the way to the license plate CAJNBOT. This license plate, also a gift from Robert, was ordered when he delivered the vehicle to the university. I learned about the license plate almost a year later. In the interim we had named the vehicle Ragin’Bot. CajunBot-II License PlateI do not think Robert was fascinated of that name. I think he was a Cajun through and through, and prefered CajunBot. Not that he said so to me, but he didn’t show much enthusiasm to the suggestion of creating another license plate RAGNBOT. That Robert (and I believe also his good friend President Authement) preferred the name CajunBot was at the back of my mind as I filled the entry “Vehicle Name” in the DAPRA Entry Forms for the Urban Challenge.

Although Robert has physically passed away, he has left so much impact on the university that he will forever be a part of the university.

– Arun Lakhotia

CajunBot’s celebration

November 6th, 2007

Fans, Friends, and Family — here is a chance to celebrate with us.  UL is organizing a ceremony to recognize the team and its sponsors for the accomplishments of CajunBot.Date: Thursday, November 8th
Time: 11:00am
Place: Martin Hall, Parking lot

Highlight: Medallion presentation by Gov. Blanco

The ceremony is open to all. Please arrive and assemble by 10:30am.

– Arun Lakhotia

Urban Challenge final anti-climactic

November 3rd, 2007

November 3, 2007 (2330hrs), VICTORVILLE, CA.  — The Urban Challenge Final was very anticlimactic. After the intense semifinal evaluation, we were expecting a real intense final. But it turned out, the semifinal was the real grill. The final was mellow, probably designed to prevent a repeat of 2004 GC.The controlled traffic that the finalists encountered was pretty limited. Unlike the NQE test in in Area A, there were no back to back cars at any intersection. Once one or two cars had passed there was ample time for a bot to make a turn. In any case, the traffic appeared to be limited to the loop immediately after the start. There did not appear to be any additional human traffic in the neighborhood.

The gauntlet or the neighborhood scenario, with cars parked on both side of the road, was no where to be seen. There was only one instance where one robot had to travel in a region where cars were stalled/stopped (not parked) on both sides.  The tests in Area B were an overkill, with 10-15 cars on both side of the road. A simulated neighborhood with bots traveling from both sides would have raised the bar, and made it a real challenge. In the absence of such a scenario, it sure feels we wasted a lot of time developing a capability that was irrelevant for the final.

There was only one scenario that CajunBot could possibly not handle. It was the drive through off-road terrain with very sparse waypoints. But the capability we developed for Area B took us half-way in that direction, and we had two more days to complete the work. So we would surely have had the capability in place.

The bots did not have to replan their path, a major part of the test in Area C. All they needed to do was follow precedence at intersection.

All in all, the perception of our team and others is the final event was a big let down.

– Arun Lakhotia

Cajun Cookout draws around 300 people

November 3rd, 2007

November 3, 2007 (0630 hrs), VICTORVILLE, CA – The Cajun Cookout was a big hit. In the words of Dr. Tether, DARPA Chief, “its better than last time.”  The event was announced to be held at “Mid-day”, leaving enough flexibility for the cooks.  By 11:30 there was a crowd gathering around. Some were circling the tent, coming back every few minutes to check if the food was served.The food also drew the stunt and race car drivers. One of them asked us about video footage of him desperately cutting out of CajunBot’s path. He was promptly named by Scott as Drama Queen. The video shows his car was far enough away. The Drama Queen went into defensive, explaining that he cannot guess what the robot will do, so he has to react early enough. Which is quite fair. But his name stuck nonetheless.

The cookout drew DARPA program managers, media crew, sponsors, and other teams. Food breaks barriers, especially as good as Brother Majors cooking.

The event also gave opportunity for the university’s PR crew Christine Payton and Eric Maron to hand out UL goodies. They had plenty to give away — UL pins, Ragin’Cajun spice (only university with its own branded spice), T-shirts, and all.

Charlie “the voice of DARPA” and also the biggest fan of our team almost did not get any crawfish. He had been busy with the practice runs. By the time he was free the crawfish was almost all gone, but for a scoop saved specially for him by Brother Majors.

– Arun Lakhotia

Majors family arrives for a Cajun cookout

November 2nd, 2007

November 2, 2007 (0730hrs), VICTORVILLE, CA.  In keeping with the tradition established in the first Grand Challenge, the Majors family arrived yesterday for the Cajun Cookout. The entourage is led by Brother Ray Majors, the person who gave this project the first break. He gave us the 6-wheeled ATV that got us rolling. He is joined with his brother John Majors who, through his company Quality Transport, Inc, has been kindly supporting us by providing vehicles and trailers to haul the bots back and forth from California. Mark Majors, of MedExpress Ambulance Service, another sponsor, and his youngest son close the pack along with Danny Majors, who is part of our team.In the backdrop of the several ‘Did Not Qualifiers’ (DNQs) that have packed and left, the Majors family continuing the cookout is an anathema. But it further reinforces the Cajun spirit already very well known in the DARPA circle. We play hard, lick our wounds, and enjoy life nonetheless.

The veterans of the challenges, which includes DARPA officials, media, and other team members, look forward to the event. We were asked at checkin whether we were having a cookout. The same question was popped up  by many when it was announced Team CajunBot DNQed.

The Majors woke up early and took off shopping. They plan to serve about 200 people. That calls for buying and cutting a load of onions, celery, bell pepper, garlic, and sausages. While all of these ingredients will be bought locally, they have carried with them twenty (correction) pounds of Louisiana crawfish tails. In keeping with the tradition the crawfish has been sponsored by Andre Leger of Chez Francois.

The Majors will spend the next four hours cutting all the ingredients and cooking. They will cook right at our hospitality tent. Cooking with open fire outside in the hubub of activity is a very big deal. Its a big deal when you know that millions were displaced a few weeks ago by forest fires. This area is a tinder box. One spark could get the whole place aflame. But, in keeping with another tradition, DARPA went out of their way to get permit for the open fire cooking. The fire marshall is invited.

We started cranking again. Today we will work on getting CajunBot opertional again. The hit has misaligned her sensors. After realigning the sensors, we plan to do some test runs, and then bring her offroad (where a Jeep really belongs). Our goal is to collect data for conditions we cannot find in Louisiana.

– Arun Lakhotia

Finalists announced, could have made it with less aggression

November 1st, 2007

November 1, 2007 (1600 hrs), VICTORVILLE, CA. Earlier in the day DARPA announced the finalists. As expected we were not in the list of 11 that made the cut.I have not kept up with the performance of other teams. My focus has been on moving our team forward.

But based on what we hear, it looks like we went a bit too aggressive on Area B. Our goal was to finish that area, just as we had finished the other two. We knew we could not complete one segment of Area B, and worked on developing the capabilities needed. Had we left that capabilitiy alone, CajunBot would have just reached that troublesome area and stopped. That could just have us qualified for the finals. The most overriding requirement for any vehicle to be in the challenge is SAFETY. By going aggressive we ended up violating that requirement, and getting knocked out all together.

Almost a year ago when I was getting the team together, the intent was to shoot for a win. We had already been in two challenges. In the last two challenges, we knew going in that we did not have the chance to win. We were quite happy being in the challenge. It was not the same this time. The excitement of being in the challenge had worn out. Besides, based on past experience we knew we had the capability to win. In the past we just did not shoot high enough.

We took the neighborhood scenario of Area B as a capability needed to win. Besides, since we completed the other two areas, it made sense that we complete this scenario as well.

It turns out that some of the teams that qualified for the final did not even reach the neighborhood scenario in Area B. To their credit, they were safe. If their vehicle had a chance of hitting something it would simply stop. That’s how CajunBot would have been had we not taken the neighborhood scenario seriously.

I just hope that the tests DARPA created truly reflect the actual challenge. It would be a shame if they mellow down the challenge so that someone can win.

– Arun Lakhotia

Day 4 – Got all the pieces together, but not in enough time

October 31st, 2007

October 31, 2007 (1900 hrs), VICTORVILLE, CA.  In case you have not heard it yet, CajunBot did not make it to the finalists. We did come very close, having finally gotten all the pieces of the puzzle. But we ran out time to do the fine tuning.CajunBot did exit the challenge with a bang, literally. She knocked a car parked on the side of the road (as part of the test environment) in Area B, shooting the car across the road, over the curb, into a house.

In this test area, DARPA had created a neighborhood scenario, with 15-20 cars parked on both sides of the road. The robots were expected to weave through these vehicles. The DARPA Urban Challenge Requirements document did mention the need for having the capability to avoid a vehicle partly protruding in the lane. But the requirement was almost mentioned as an afterthought, like something good to have. The emphasis in the requirements document, as also the site visit evaluation, was on avoiding stalled vehicles on two lane roads.

Over the last few months W\we had focused on our energies on passing vehicles stalled on a road, essentially blocking a whole lane. It turned out that capability was not even relevant for the NQE.

After having finished Area A and C, we finally began focusing on the requirement for Area B. Yesterday evening we did not have a clue on how to handle driving through neighborhood. Since the start of NQE we had come up with various solutions, but none were satisfactory. However, last night things started falling in place. Around 2100 hrs (9:00pm) Pablo, I think, suggested using ‘particle field’ approach. In this approach the path of the vehicle is treated as particles. Objects (like cars) on the road act as forces that push the particles. This approach sounded very promising, and I encouraged him to code it up.

Around midnight he had a solution, but it did not behave as expected. It resulted in paths that would make the vehicle go way out of the road to avoid something.

In the discussion, Daro came up with the brilliant idea of treating the path not as independent particles, but as an elastic string. The particles of the string pull each other.

Pablo coded the solution, and at some point fell asleep. Daro kept ticking, tuning the system. By about 7:00am in the morning we could see that the method worked in a simulated environment.

By 10:00am we were ready to run in Area B. The run did not go off well. The bot did not even make the progress she had made yesterday.

We got back to the motorhome, and continued fine tuning the system. We were offered to run again about 2:00pm.

This time around, CajunBot was a completely different beast. She cruised through the initial segments, areas she was earlier hesitating to go through. She was clipping at 25mph, and looked real good.

But once in the neighborhood with all the parked cars, she clipped a car while trying to avoid it.

Data from the run indicates that the method Pablo and Daro came up with worked really good. The only limitation was it was not tuned well enough. The forces exerted by the objects were a bit too weak. So while CajunBot attempted to swerve, she did not swerve hard enough. In the process she could not avoid the parked car.

The fender bender knocked CajunBot out of the challenge.

While I am disheartened, I am not disappointed. I think this small band of boys from Louisiana has shown that they can take on a challenge, and have fun with it as well.

Dr. Tether’s parting words were, “will see you next time.” We may be down, but not out, if no one wins the challenge. We have gained considerable experience, and will come back stronger next time.

– Arun Lakhotia