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CajunBot zooms ahead Print E-mail

"Change lanes."

"Looking very nice." 
Arun Lakhotia almost whispers the commands to the bright red Jeep Wrangler navigating a stretch of asphalt at Cajun Field.

But it's not Lakhotia's words that guide the vehicle or the hands of a driver behind the wheel.

The Jeep is CajunBot II, the autonomous vehicle designed by a team of students and researchers at UL for the Department of Defense's DARPA — or Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

On Wednesday, CajunBot II showed DARPA officials what it could do. The officials will decide in a few weeks which teams will compete in its Urban Challenge on Nov. 3.

The challenge was created three years ago to promote the development of autonomous vehicles that could perform defense duties — from scouting and armed defense to delivering supplies in war zones.

The team was one of 53 that DARPA officials are visiting to see which 30 will move on to the qualification event at the end of October. Those who qualify will then move onto the actual race where the top prize is $2 million, with $1 million and $500,000 going to the second- and third-place finishers.

UL's team likely won't have an answer until August, but will continue to work perfecting the vehicle's systems, said Lakhotia, a UL associate professor with the Center for Advanced Computer Studies. But the vehicle performed well for the federal visitors, he said.

"I feel our runs were pretty much flawless. I don't know what reasons they could find to disqualify us now. Until we get a response we can't open the champagne. We're going to continue working and there's more capabilities that need to be developed before the challenge."

Narrowed down

The selection was narrowed down from 100 teams, said Scott Wilson, another veteran CajunBot team member.

DARPA officials checked the vehicle's ability to follow the rules of the road — proper lane changes, four-way stops, following vehicles within a safe distance.

"Safety is one of the hardest things to plan for," Wilson said. "You have to assume that the other vehicle will be safe."

To see if the robot could hold its own on the road, officials set up obstacle courses at Cajun Field. The robot had to first drive in a lane and stay in the lane without swerving in and out of the lined path.

It did.

Next, parked vehicles blocked its path. CajunBot had to maneuver around each parked truck and move back into its lane.

It did.

Then, CajunBot showed how well it could obey the rules when at a four-way stop. Time after time, CajunBot waited its turn and allowed the first vehicle that arrived to make its turn before turning and continuing to drive.

After each successful pause and turn, onlookers applauded.

And a camera crew captured every frame of it.

Success documented

The small production crew is filming the team's success as part of a Discovery Channel Science series on the technology and teams behind these driverless vehicles.

The UL team is one of 10 who will be featured for the series. Another Louisiana team — Team Gray of Metairie, a private sector team that includes some students from Tulane University ­— will also be featured.

Team CajunBot was a shoo-in for inclusion in the series, said Mark Marabella, whose production company is filming the series for the network.

"We fell in love with Arun," Marabella said. "He was really funny."

For the team's tape submission to be a part of the series, Lakhotia jumped out of the slow moving vehicle and proclaimed, "Look Ma I'm not driving!"

But after spending his first day with the team, it wasn't only the team's quirky leader that made UL's team so interesting, Marabella said.

"They have so many undergrads who are part of the project. It's like a David and Goliath story," he said.

Marabella said one worry he had with doing the series on these high-tech teams would be that their stories would be too similar, but after visiting a few already he said it's clear that each has their own personality and quirks.

"We were just at MIT. They were so stoic and it was all business. But they're (UL) very relaxed. They're very communal," said Marabella.


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