Robot prepares for solo journey

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Government project draws UL Lafayette participants
Marsha Sills
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January 25 2004

LAFAYETTE - The countdown is on for the UL Lafayette team tinkering with a six-wheeled all-terrain vehicle programmed to cross the deserts and mountains of California and Nevada on its own.

The robot developed by UL Lafayette's Center for Advanced Computer Studies was selected to compete in the U.S. Department of Defense's Grand Challenge for a $1 million prize.

Twenty-four other robotic vehicles developed by teams from across the country will hit the 210-mile course traversing the deserts mountains and possibly towns between Barstow Calif. and Las Vegas. The route will be free of pedestrians and vehicles. On CajunBot's trail are vehicles designed by research teams at Cal Tech and Virginia Tech.

Arun Lakhotia and Charles Cavanaugh both professors in UL Lafayette's Center for Advanced Computer Studies head up the group of students and professionals who have worked at times nonstop on the project.

The fact that UL Lafayette's team will race against vehicles designed by research teams from leading robotic research schools is a feat in itself Lakhotia said.

"We're barging into a party " Lakhotia said. "It gives us the opportunity to jump in the field and start playing with the big boys."

Computer science senior Adrian Aucoin likened the experience to a fairy tale.

"We're not known for robotics and we're up against schools and corporations that are " he said. "We're like a Cinderella. The fact we've gone this far is good."

The project has been an opportunity for students to apply what they learn in the classroom said Magdy Bayoumi director of the Center for Advanced Computer Studies.

"What attracts them is that they put the research to work " Bayoumi said after trailing CajunBot from the back of a four-wheeler.

Students from the computer sciences mechanical engineering and even communication departments are on board filming a documentary of the team's progress.

And it's a project that students can get excited about Aucoin said.

"I get to write code and learn stuff I wouldn't in school " he said. "It's real-world experience and I get to play with expensive toys that aren't mine."

The project also has been a marriage between the university and the community Lakhotia said. And more help is needed.

"We're running on zero with zero budget " Lakhotia said.

The team still needs equipment including another Max IV ATV and a 1 000 watt generator and the means to transport CajunBot out west to test the vehicle before the race. A laser range finder that scans about 40 meters is mounted to the front of CajunBot but the laser is on loan until Feb. 24. The team has its fingers crossed that more help will come in time. Ideally the team would like to have at least a week in the desert to test CajunBot. On March 8 the vehicle has a final screening that will determine if it is
allowed to race.

Some companies have stepped up Cavanaugh said. C&C Technologies in Lafayette which has underwater autonomous vehicles donated a precise global positioning system to help CajunBot avoid obstacles in its path.

Two C&C employees are also working on the CajunBot team popping into the shop the team has taken over in Abdalla Hall on their lunch breaks and after work.

The donation was a good investment for the company and the community said Jeff Fortenberry C&C Technologies spokesman.

"We encourage students and people to advance technology here locally which can increase economic development and talent in the community " Fortenberry said.

The six-wheeled ATV powered by a 25 horsepower engine was donated by a preacher who hunts. Companies in Prairieville and Baton Rouge have donated equipment and services. The project has a European sponsor from Xsens a company in The Netherlands that offered an inertial motion sensor.

The Grand Challenge was designed to help the Department of Defense advance its plans to develop autonomous robotic vehicles for military use.

The race starts in Barstow on March 13 and ends outside of Las Vegas. Teams will be given the route about two hours before the race begins. The coordinates will be programmed into CajunBot and then the vehicle is on its own navigating with Global Positioning Technology and in cases when there are too few satellites an intertial navigation system.

Race officials will follow the vehicles and hold the remotes to kill-switches attached to each machine. The team can watch from media location spots along the route but team members are not allowed to

Sand rock rain mountains. CajunBot has to deal with whatever comes its way and stay on course. But the team's not worried.

"It's built like a brick house " Cavanaugh said.

Last week CajunBot was decorated with its accomplishments for the day - wet grass and mud plastered its tires and body. The vehicle made large turns through the field adjacent to its home in Abdallas Hall with no hands on deck. The vehicle followed the programmed pattern without a hitch.

CajunBot steers like a tank and can roll at speeds that reach about 30 mph. However the race isn't about speed but crossing the finish line within the 10-hour limit the team said.

"The big challenge is to be able to see at a distance and respond " Lakhotia said. "If you see an obstacle and need to stop you must calculate reaction time. It can't happen instantaneously. If you have a two-second loss it can make a difference."

Even the most precise planning can fall to pieces in the unknowns of the terrain Cavanaugh said.

"There has to be a certain degree of planning but the machine has to be autonomous " Cavanaugh said. "If it comes across something unexpected it has to be able to handle it."

The challenge will continue each year until there's a winner. During the first year of development it's unlikely that a winner will be announced Lakhotia said.

"If someone wins this year then the party's over but it's doubtful " he said.

It's appropriate that the race ends in Vegas Lakhotia said. The challenge is a gamble.

"We just want to be in the race " Lakhotia said. "This is a challenge to build battlefield vehicles. It's not going to be a walk in the park. There will be surprises."