Student takes robotic challenge

Thursday April 01 2004
By Christine L. Bordelon
Kenner bureau

With only three months of preparation a team of students and teachers
from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette including one student
from Kenner built and entered an autonomous ground vehicle in the
federal Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Grand Challenge
held March 13 in California. The six-wheel-drive all-terrain
10-foot-long vehicle called CajunBot was one of 15 to qualify March
8-12 to participate in the 142-mile challenge run from Barstow
Calif. to Primm Nev. in a 10-hour time limit. From Our Advertiser
In the 1.5-mile qualifying demonstration the CajunBot did well on a
man-made obstacle course at the California Speedway team member Josh
Bridevaux of Kenner said. "It got three-fourths of the way through the
obstacle course " said Bridevaux 21 a fourth-year computer
engineering student. "The only reason it didn't get through was that
there was a malfunction in the emergency-stop system " In the actual
race the CajunBot vehicle brushed a wall when it came out of the
chute and was removed from the course. No other vehicle completed the
course either. The closest anyone came to the finish line and the $1
million cash prize was 7.4 miles out of the chute. Bridevaux was part
of a team that included six undergraduates seven graduate students
and several professors including professors Charles Cavanaugh Arun
Lakhotia and Tony Maida of the University of Louisiana's Center for
Advanced Computer Studies. It was the first time a team from the
University of Louisiana at Lafayette had entered the competition
Cavanaugh said. "I saw it as a segue into imbedded systems and
robotics and it would look great on a student's resume and give them
a unique experience on a hands-on project that was of great
significance to the university as well as the state " Cavanaugh
said. The CajunBot vehicle was equipped with computers and laser
sensors. It had an inertial measurement system that functioned as a
compass and measured roll pitch and heave. It was programmed with an
algorithm for obstacle detection that was written by Maida. The
CajunBot was one of four or five vehicles actually up and running the
day before qualifying. "It worked " Bridevaux said. "But we had a lot
of problems with it. Every morning we had to fix something." The
invitation to participate in the race came after a Department of
Defense team visited the Lafayette campus in December and judged the
vehicle worthy. "We built it all at ULL " Bridevaux said. "We started
Nov. 10 and the Department of Defense checked it out and tested it in
December. Four days before they came out we totally rebuilt the
vehicle. They were impressed with how much we could do." Bridevaux
estimated that the team worked 200 hours a month in January and
February to prepare for the race and 19 hours a day while in Los
Angeles during the competition. While the CajunBot didn't finish the
course Bridevaux said the experience he gained was much more valuable
than even the potential $1 million prize. "No one was expecting us to
complete the race " Bridevaux said. "It was a learning experience for
next year. I probably learned more about the electronics and computer
science than I've ever learned in school before. I got to work with
really smart people and did things I had never done before. I was one
of the main guys who wired all the hardware in the vehicle. It held up
well during the race." "Josh's contributions have been valuable to
us " Cavanaugh said. "He has done a lot work in systems integration of
electronics and has also been of great help in the testing phase. He
is an essential part of the team."  The CajunBot team is already
talking about entering the 2005 competition and Bridevaux plans to be
on it. "We will try to build on what we have as much as we can "
Cavanaugh said. "You may see multiple entries from us if we can get
enough sponsors behind us. We need funding to buy an inertial
navigation system that costs over $100 000. That's a key component if
we don't have that we don't have as good as system as we had this
time " which was borrowed.

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