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Driverless car robots face off in UBC engineering physics showdown

Engineering students put in hundreds of hours of work to build and program driverless car robots from scratch

Vishnu Venkatesh and other engineering students could only watch from the sidelines as their robots were put to the test in a Uber-bot competition at UBC Thursday.

Jennifer Gauthier / Metro Order this photo

Vishnu Venkatesh and other engineering students could only watch from the sidelines as their robots were put to the test in a Uber-bot competition at UBC Thursday.

Spectators in a crowded lecture hall cheer as a robot picks up its passenger by the neck, drives to its destination – the passenger is hanging in mid air at this point – and lets go. The crowd roars with approval.

Thursday's Uber-style driverless car competition is the result of hundreds of hours worth of work for 60 UBC engineering physics students.

The robot course is a cityscape complete with a roundabout and styrofoam highrises. The passengers are stuffed animals. The stakes are high – this competition is the students’ final exam.

“We actually made a replica of this course in one of my teammates living rooms so we could work on it on the weekends,” said Jordan Jones, one of the competitors.

In what UBC’s director of engineering physics, Andre Marziali, calls the “hardest course in university”, second-year students split into teams to build 15 robots in five weeks.

The robots race in pairs to pick up and drop off as many passengers as possible in a mock cityscape in two minutes. 

Jones’ team and their robot, Ray, came in second place after losing a nail-biting tiebreaker to the robot Jett Pacer.

This summer course serves as an excellent bootcamp for aspiring engineers, said Jon Nakane, director of the UBC engineering physics lab.

“These are exactly the same type of skills that industry is looking for,” he told Metro in between robot matches.

Robert Dirnnan watches as a passenger dangles precariously from an 'Uber-bot' at Thursday's competition.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro

Robert Dirnnan watches as a passenger dangles precariously from an 'Uber-bot' at Thursday's competition.

“They are looking for students that have the ability to solve problems with mechanical parts, electronic parts, to write software and artificial intelligence to interact with the world.”

Many robots in Thursday’s competition used an extendable arm-clamp combination to grab the passengers and one even tried a shovel-and-dump technique. Mistakes proved costly but sometimes drew laughs from the crowd as robots pushed or ran over passengers.

Driverless cars are still a long way away from becoming reality, said one student at the robot showdown.

UBC engineering physics student Curtis Huber nervously watches his team's robot navigate the course.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro

UBC engineering physics student Curtis Huber nervously watches his team's robot navigate the course.

“We are given a lot of help here, there are detectors and that. In real life it’s going to be extraordinarily hard to have actual Uber bots,” said engineering student Jim Shaw.

But autonomous cars are one of the most exciting fields of engineering right now, said Nakane.

“You see the way our students get trained … these assistive devices that are designed to make our vehicle safe, they are right around the corner.”

 That’s one of the reasons why the engineering physics team at UBC chose a driverless-car theme for this year’s final project, said Nakane. Other year’s projects have involved hockey-bots, search-and-rescue-bots, and build-bots.

UBC engineering physics student Lilian Liu built one of the robots in Thursday's Uber-bot challenge.

Jennifer Gauthier/Metro

UBC engineering physics student Lilian Liu built one of the robots in Thursday's Uber-bot challenge.

“We like to choose something that gets people interested and excited. Something that is a little topical.” 

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