The University of Louisiana at Lafayette is known for many of its programs, but one lab in the mechanical engineering department may be creating the droids to make the world a better, and safer, place.
Under the tutelage of mechanical engineering professor Joshua Vaughan, undergraduate and graduate students are devising robotics within a lab with the cheeky Acadian moniker: “Control, Robotics and Automation, With respect for human interaction,” or CRAW for short.
Vaughan, who earned his doctorate at Georgia Tech, brought the lab concept with him when he arrived at UL-Lafayette in 2012.
From automated cranes handling treacherous work in rough Gulf waters to search-and-rescue robots and clown cars, the CRAW Lab, located in C.L. Rougeou Hall, seems to have no limits on all things robotic.
One of the major projects is a robotic crane system for the retrieval of the automated oil-and-gas research boats while out at sea.
The project, sponsored by the Louisiana Board of Regents, seeks to develop a system that would use robotics, vibration controls and specialized cameras to allow for easier retrieval and deployment of the research boats in the Gulf of Mexico, regardless of how choppy or disruptive the waves might be.
Another automated system the lab is trying to develop uses technology similar to football skycams to perform automated inspections of bridges and tall buildings.
Robotic cameras and lines hanging beneath a bridge or on the sides of skyscrapers would replace the dangerous practice of hanging people under bridges or sending people up on scaffolds for manual inspections and cleaning.
“We’re trying to make this much safer and more efficient by using a camera that’s taking pictures every (set amount of) feet and piecing them together so someone can check for any problems at any time,” Vaughan said.
One of the lab’s most interesting projects is its work on adding flexibility to robot legs and utilizing vibration controls to allow for more fluid running and jumping.
The lab uses a 3D printer to make the legs.
Remote controls similar to those used for RC cars or video game controllers are used to control the robots.
Crawling on four or six legs, these insect-like machines are based on cockroach research done at the University of California, Berkeley.
“There are some pretty impressive machines in nature,” Vaughan said. “The cockroach has this sort of flexible piece to its leg. What this allows them to do is not have to think about where they put their feet. This eases the computational burden on where the robot needs to put its feet.”
Although the lab’s work usually focuses on breakthroughs in the field on robotics, it doesn’t mean the students can’t put their mechanical engineering skills to more fun uses.
This year, CRAW Lab students created a clown car for the Krewe of Bonaparte’s Mardi Gras ball that blew confetti and shot pingpong balls as it drove.
And the lab is still being used to teach classes in the mechanical engineering department.
The numerous cranes and cameras are used to teach UL-Lafayette students about momentum and vibrational forces and let the undergraduates put theory into practice.
“During the semester, we have a competition arena set up here,” said Vaughan. “It’s a second-year mechanical design class. Towards the end of the semester, for the last six to eight weeks, they work towards our final big robotics competition to see who can take design specifications and customer demands and make the best design.”
This hands-on training may be why the CRAW Lab sees so many of its students return for graduate studies. The lab currently has four graduate students, all of whom completed their undergraduate degrees at UL-Lafayette.
Vaughan said he works hard to keep talented students at UL-Lafayette.
“A big part of my job for me is getting the stipends and research apprenticeships for my students,” said Vaughan. “They put in a lot of hard work and I want them to be paid for it.”