Archive for October, 2007

Day 1 didn’t go as well….

Sunday, October 28th, 2007

October 28, 2007 (0933 hrs), VICTORVILLE, CA.  — You’ve not heard from me in 24 hrs, and I am sure you guessed that cannot be good news. Our performance in Test Area C was sub par. CajunBot goofed up on things we have tested over and over again, and didn’t complete one task we knew she may have difficulty.

The moment we finished (rather, did not finish) the test, we went into a huddle. Analyzed the reasons, and then started focusing on the next test today in Area A. This one is going to be a killer. Almost everyone has been working through the night. That makes it two nights barely with any sleep for several members — Pablo, Suresh, Mark, John, Chandan, and Dallas.

Here is a quick summary of what happened in Test Area C. The area is a ring with two 4-way stops (intersections) on opposite end. The bot is expected to go around the ring, and at each 4-way stop she is met with other traffic vehicles. She has to maintain the rules of a ‘stop’ sign, give precedence to other vehicles that come before it.

This capability was tested  few months ago in the site visit, and we test it routinely.

CajunBot did well for the first two interactions at the stops. In the third interaction, there were three vehicles already at the intersection. She let two vehicles go, but then took before the third vehicle moved. This was a complete surprise to us.

After that the behavior kept getting worse. A similar scenario was created in the next stop. This time CajunBot almost kissed the bumper of the car ahead. In the next loop, she was riding the curb and didn’t care of any other vehicle at the stop sign. You kind of get a feeling she was irritated to be given such stupid test.

As the loop progressed she was to encounter a blockage in the road and expected to turn around. This is also something she has done many times. But this time around, she just went stopped in front of the blockage and decided not to move.

That was the end of the test, for the bot would not progress any further.

What caused this misbehavior? Our analysis indicates two things: first, it looks like after two loops the bot began experiencing a GPS drift, which essentially means she was shifting the middle of the road about two feet to the right (in some situations). That made her ride the curb. Second, we have never tested in a situation like this before. All our tests are in wide open spaces. This is the first time we are testing in a real neighborhood. The main difference now is that our sensors pick up a lot, lot more data in this environment. In the process something has tripped.

More on this later… I need to rush out to the test area.

– Arun Lakhotia

Get to know the NQE test area

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

VICTORVILLE, CA. — The NQE start today. Since you are following the challenge, you may be interested in the knowing about the physical location.As a starter, locate us on Google Maps. Click on View Map or search for ‘Starfighter Lane, Victorville, CA.’ The ‘arrow’ on the map points to the ‘start chute’ location for the finals of the challenge.

This area is now called ‘Southern California Logistics Agency.’ It used to be George Air Force Base. All that remains in this base are some empty buildings and an elementary school. Since no one really lives here, I wonder how this school gets kids.

Here is an aerial image of the Test Area A. (Click on the image to see a bigger picture.)

The test area is created in an abadoned parking lot. The yellow lines on the map show the DARPA map given to us. This track will be used for testing the ability of the bot to merge in traffic. The area consists of a rectangle with two way traffic, and a path cutting through the rectangle. During the tests, vehicles operated by DARPA drivers will be doing laps on the rectangle. The bot is expected to arrive at the intersections, and wait for other vehicle before merging in the traffic.

The following is an aerial image of Test Area B.

Area B looks the most complicated. It will be used to test the bot’s ability to drive even if the map given by DARPA does not have enough data points, the ability to park and unpark, the ability to drive through open space while avoiding obstacles.

Finally, the aerial image of Test Area C.

This area will be used for the bot’s ability to re-route it planned path if it comes across a blocked road.

Today we test in Area C, then in Area A on Sunday, and in Area C on Monday.

– Arun Lakhotia

Day 1 – Acitivities picking up

Saturday, October 27th, 2007

October 27, 2007 (0738 hrs), VICTORVILLE, CA.Day 1 activities are picking up. Most members of the team have been working through the night. Yesterdays licking in E-stop test served a purpose. The first timers have gotten a taste of what to expect in the next few days. The overall energy level is high.

Pablo Mejia, our Chief Architect, arrived last night. His presence changes the dynamics of the team. He has earned respect of everyone by his sharp mind, shooting from the hip simple solutions to difficult problems, and staying calm like a rock even in turbulence.

Pablo and crew have worked through the night. We have had a to close a lot of loose ends, issues we have known, but have not had time to attend.

At 0850 we have a practice run scheduled. We get a 40 minute slot in a wide open, dirt area. But for the bot, nothing else is allowed in this area. Which means we cannot really test some of the advanced capabilities in this area. However, our plan is to test the system’s ability to run for the whole duration. This will be a test of the electronics of the system. We experienced an electrical interference yesterday during E-stop test. Need to test whether similar issue may arise after the machine has been running (with all systems on) for a long duration.

The NQE test starts at 1220. We are the first in the group, followed by Stanford.

My role today is to wait on the team members. Joshua, Chandan, and Mark slept at 0430. I am not sure if Pablo slept at all. Suresh slept early, but woke up at 0100. They will be tired when they wake up. My role is to drive them to pit, power them up with coffee, and cater breakfast.

Quite coincidentally this hotel is owned by an immigrant of Indian descent. This guy has been great, serving me ‘chai’ every morning. So, my first stop out of my room is to go to his office and get my chai.

Time to shutdown the machine and roll.

– Arun Lakhotia

Broadpoint satellite brings Internet to Team CajunBot pit

Friday, October 26th, 2007

VICTORVILLE, CA. — If you are eager to follow the happenings in the challenge, you got to thank Mark LaGrone and Danny Burgess of Broadpoint. Thanks to them I am sitting comfortably in a motorhome in our pit and writing this note. I hope to bring you daily events as soon as they happen.Broadpoint has provided us with a satellite dish and subscription to the Internet service. The day before the bot left Lafayette I called Mark, my former student and neighbor, requesting a satellite hookup. Next morning 8:00am it was all ready to be picked up, with tech support instructions and all.

I was surprised how nice and compact the whole package was. Just three pieces. A satellite dish, a big suitcase with all the electronics, and a cardboard box with stand for the antenna. All I had to acquire on this side was sandbags to hold the base down.

Setting up the satellite dish was easy too. At least Dallas made it look easy. He is another multifaceted person. A computer science major, who is part of a rock band, does house renovation, great with logistics, and can climb up the RV to setup satellite dish.

While getting the dish setup on the roof of a RV is physically challenging task, for someone like me, the big work in setting up the dish is pointing it to the right satellite and setting up the correct orientations. Thanks to Broadpoints technology this was a breeze. Mark has given us an instrument called Birddog. With this instrument, you just punch in a few numbers, and it does all the work needed to talk to the satellite.

Isn’t that great. Another Ragin’Cajuns supporter stepping up to the plate to give a little helping hand to Team CajunBot.

Judice Middle students – I have read your comments on the blog. You can EARN T-Shirts, CajunBot visit to the school, and even an invitation to CajunBot’s homecoming celebration. All you need to do is find some creative way to thank my sponsors (individuals and companies that have helped my team).

Lets start with Broadpoint. Show me what you can do to make them proud of supporting us. I have other sponsors too. So get started fast. I’d be reeling out other names once I see your spirit. You help me with appreciating the sponsors, and you can earn a visit to Cajunbot’s homecoming on November 8th.

In case you need it, Broadpoint’s address is  113 N. Pat St., Scott, LA 70583.

The above offer is open to students of other Lafayette area schools as well. Please don’t mind my bias towards Judice Middle. My wife works there, and I couldn’t have done what I am doing without her support.

– Arun Lakhotia

Started off on the wrong foot

Friday, October 26th, 2007

VICTORVILLE, CA.    Through these reports, I want you (the reader) to experience what we are experiencing.  This means sharing with you the excitements of our successes and pain of our failures. Today, I have to share a pain.Today was supposed to be an uninteresting day. Start with opening ceremony at 0700. Then go for ‘safety testing’ at 1030. We have gone through safety testing so many times that it was expected to be a mechanical step.

Turns out that things did not go as smoothly as expected. We exhausted our alloted 30 minutes, and would need to do the test again.

Lets start with the basics of the capability being tested. The robots are autonomous, they drive by themselves. But you’d not want a car to go beserk. So DARPA has provided us with an ‘E-stop’, a wireless equipment. The receiver is setup on the bot. The transmitter is held by the DARPA operator. The E-stop has two buttons: DISABLE and PAUSE/RUN.

Before starting the bot, the operator presses the PAUSE button. Then the bot is given command to launch. The operator than releases PAUSE (and changes to RUN). The bot can now move. The operator may press PAUSE at anytime, and the bot must come stop. When the PAUSE is released, the bot may move. However, if the operator deems the bot to be getting dangerous, s/he may press DISABLE. At which point the bot must turn off the engine and never start again even if its put in RUN mode.

The E-stop safety test is intended to test this capability. If the bot behave as described above, it cannot proceed to any other tests.

The E-stop safety test proceeds as follows. We are given a ‘E-stop Test RNDF’, which essentially has a straightline path with two waypoints. The bot is placed on the first waypoint, the operator presses PAUSE, we are asked to give bot the command to go to the second waypoint, the operator releases PAUSE (changing to RUN mode), the bot begins to move, the operator presses DISABLE.

Nothing to it, we went through these steps for the DARPA site visit in June.

But, sometimes its the simple things that can bite you. In the above sequence when the operator pressed released PAUSE, the bot would not move. When the bot goes autonomous she is expected to turn on its emergency (flashing) lights and the siren. This time she was completely quiet. Not a beep and not lights.

The launch team, consisting of Joshua, Suresh, and Little John, were in the spotlight. Crew from Discovery Channel howering over goading them to verbalize what they were thinking. DARPA radio crackling, reporting the issue to higher up the chain. The teams in line for e-stop testing were queuing up. Just a frenzy of activity and excitement. Top it all the Sun was showing no mercy either. The high desert has no clouds. If anything is blocking the heat, its the smoke from the fires on the west.

Most people would crack under such pressure.  But Suresh and Joshua have been hardened, having gone through such things and worse in the past two challenges. This is first experience for Little John, and he was holding his nerves well. The trio, who were the only people around the bot, were thinking on their feet as fast as they could. They came up with a slew of possibilities. Its hard to believe all of the possibilities they came up with turned out to be correct. Very soon they ran out of clock, and had to give way to the next team.

Just to be fair to the team, we are not the only team in this boat. There are other teams that have experienced problems as well. That’s what makes this challenge so much fun.

We are now schedule for a re-test at 1700. But DARPA is running behind schedule, and its possible we may have a retest in the morning.

– Arun Lakhotia

E-stop retest went ok, good to go tomorrow

Friday, October 26th, 2007

VICTORVILLE, CA. — Quick note. We went for the E-stop retest. Everything went fine this time. The issues were all corrected. Now the main event starts tomorrow. The first test is in Area C.

– Arun Lakhotia

Pit and hospitality area setup

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

VICTORVILLE, CA — The drill starts tomorrow. Teams have setup their camps. We have been assigned areas in a parking lot. Each team’s area is about eight parking spots long. Danny and Big John setup our camp last night. Its the nice 42′ enclosed trailer (courtesy Quality Transport, Inc.) that CajunBot was transported in and a rented Motor Home 35′ long. The motorhome will serve as the lab, and the trailer will serve as workshop and storage for the bot.

Danny has also setup a hospitality tent. Its the most attractive and pleasant setup of all teams. While all others have the generic white canopy tent. Ours tent is straight out of Mediterranean Nights. Its white canopy with flowing Red and White shades (or curtains, not sure what they are called).

We have also received the prime location for the hospitality area. Its right overlooking the DARPA tent, where all the traffic is.

How so ever nice the hospitality tent is, there is a problem. I do not have enough hands to man it. PR folks — its an opportunity, you will surely regret missing.

But I am looking forward to the Cajun Cookout to be hosted by Brother Ray Majors on November 3rd. The hospitality tent will be put to good use that day.

– Arun Lakhotia

Process of selecting the finalists

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

VICTORVILLE, CA. — There are 35 teams in the semifinals. On November 1st there will be AT MOST 20 remaining. Notice the emphasis on AT MOST. For a team to qualify as a finalist it MUST meet some minimum criteria, and that minimum criteria is a lot higher than the Grand Challenges.Here is a quick overview of the selection process.

Lets first get the terminology straight.

The semifinal ‘tests’ will be held from October 26 to November 31. Each day is split into two ‘time’ blocks–morning and afternoon–except the first day and last days have only one block. Thus, in the entire duration there are 10 blocks.

There are three test areas, creatively named Area A, Area B, and Area C. While their names are not informative, their locations are not secret. About a month ago we were given a Google Map marking the locations. We were also given the directive to stay our of those areas, or else risk being disqualified.

The 35 teams are split into five groups. DARPA does not appear to have given a name to each group, which seems like a procedural oversight. The other teams in our group are: Stanford Racing Team, Team Cybernet, Team Jefferson, Gator Nation, Honeywell/IVS Team, The Golem Group.

Now let us put it all together.

DARPA has announced the schedule for the first five test blocks. What will happen after the first five block is still a secret. I think its a secret not so much out of habit (after all its a DoD organization), but it gives DARPA some flexibility.

During each of the first five test blocks, there will be some tests happening in each test area. Since there are only three test areas and five groups, it follows that not every group will be tested in each block.

We have tests scheduled in Block 1, 3, and 5. This is extremely nice. These odd numbered blocks happened to be ‘afternoon blocks’, from 1220 to 1700 (military time). Compare that with the morning block time 0730 to 1200, and you know why I think it is extremely nice. My team is just not a morning team.

Now let me say the same thing in simple words. Our first three tests (which is all that are scheduled) are in the afternoons of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. (I had to write the other details just to show off my professorial skills.)

Now that we got our testing times straight, lets get on to the specific tests.

Our first test (Friday) is in Area B, next (Saturday) is in Area C, and third (Sunday) in Area A.

According to DARPA “Each team is scheduled for ONE attempt at each of the three test areas” (emphasis added). The crucial part is we get one shot. And then we know on Monday where we stand.

The specifics of the tests in each area is not disclosed. But we have received the ‘RNDF’ file, which is essentially a map of each area. We can guess from the map what the test questions will be. Here is what I expect.

Area A – Test ability to drive with sparse waypoints (or obstacle field).

Area B – Test ability to merge in traffic and park.

Area C – Test ability to negotiate intersections (with other traffic)

As we stand today, we are pretty good in tests for Area B. We have covered most issues expected in Area C, except for the ability to negotiate jammed intersections. We are not as strong in the tests for Area A, but we have time on our side.

Now its time for the team to head off to the pit area. We are scheduled for a photoshoot with Dr. Tony Tether, the head man of DARPA.

– Arun Lakhotia

No NQE test on Friday, tests start from Saturday

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

VICTORVILLE, CA — Quick news. DARPA has changed testing schedule. There will be no NQE tests on Friday. Our new testing schedule is — Area C on Saturday PM, Area A on Sunday PM, and Area B on Monday AM.Tomorrow is left as a preparation day, both for the team and DARPA. They need to work out the kinks in their testing protocol.

– Arun Lakhotia

New sensors mounted and operational

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

VICTORVILLE, CA – In case you are holding your breath, you can let go. We have finished mounting ‘our’ two new Ibeo Scanners and two radars (thanks again to Team Cyberrider and Team Overbot). The sensors have been completely integrated into the system. We still need to run some tests to assess the improvements. It sure cannot be worse than what we had.

This is a miracle, considering Joshua was down sick. Or may be it is because of that. We had five people doing things that he does. Now that his territory is encroached, it would be hard for him to keep others off.

It was John Loftin (christened Big John) to shine. He is a gentle giant. A big frame with a very polite demeanor. He rented a gas welder and got to work.  With specs from Joshua, he knocked out the mounts for the two sensor suites in no time.

Dalls Griffith finally got to do what he has so often offered, but has previously been shooed away. He got to drill a hole in the Jeep. (No don’t choke.) Its a hole to route wires from the under the hood into the cabin. Dallas did a meticulous job laying the cables. Goes to show you cannot judge people by their clothes.

The big surprise to me was seeing Chandan Uddaraju helping with routing cables in the Jeep. I didn’t expect to ever catch him looking in the engine block of a vehicle. But there he was his hands deep under the hood. Goes to say you can not judge people by their degree either.

After the hardware was integrated to the vehicle, Christopher Mire and Chandan took charge of integrating the sensors to the software system. Since we have other similar sensors, integration was simple enough.

But nothing is straightforward. More sensors, means more data, means more cpu cycles, means our one ‘main’ computer was choaked. In normal situations this would have been an issue. But Joshua has already loaded up spare machines on the computer rack. In no time Christopher had distributed the computation to the ‘overflow’ machine.

With all these additional sensors, I think we have significantly addressed one of our weakness. CajunBot is still limited in its sensing capability in comparison to other challengers. But the sensors we have are likely to be sufficient for our needs.

– Arun Lakhotia