Wanted: Young Engineers With Drive

Aug. 14, 2015

A dozen undergraduate students from across the country gathered for the pinnacle of their 10-week research program at the University of Arizona: navigating a slow-moving, ByWire XGV vehicle through an empty parking lot.

The Research Experiences for Undergraduates, or REU, program at the UA, funded by the National Science Foundation, helped the students develop applications to remotely control the Cognitive and Autonomous Test vehicle, or CAT. The program has been hosted for three years by Jonathan Sprinkle, an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the UA.

Sprinkle said the students for the program were chosen from 350 applicants.

"We look for students who have the potential for research," he said. "The research they’ve done here has been with almost no previous experience in the area of control systems."

One student team, consisting of UA senior electrical engineering major Alberto Heras and Lykes Claytor, a senior computer science and mathematics major from Wofford College in South Carolina, focused on an issue pervading the surface streets of Tucson: traffic.

Driverless vehicles would be useful for more than passengers' texting and eating during the morning commute, they said.

Heras said that a standard solution for traffic — increasing the width of roads — can change the density of cars on the road but not the management of them, and management is what has a greater effect on congestion.

Heras and Claytor propose platoons — lines of cars where one leads and the rest follow, communicating via radio technology. Then, roadside units, or RSUs, on a grid system would monitor and regulate the speed and position of platoons based on data from intersections. RSUs would fire off important messages to platoon leaders, which would take less computational power — and less money — than sending it to each car on the road.

"None of this is so different than a lot of technology already available and used in regular cars," Heras said. "It’s just being applied in a different way. A big part of doing research is familiarizing yourself with something others may have already been studying for years. You read a lot of papers and learn a lot that way."

Then comes the application aspect.

"That’s the fun part,” Claytor said. “That’s what we love doing."