The Robotics Club is building an autonomous golf cart, meaning, one day, it can drive itself. | Sam Sullivan/Mustang News

Samantha Sullivan

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Self-driving vehicles have fascinated engineers and consumers for some time. Now, a division of Cal Poly’s Robotics Club is trying its hands at the technology.

It could potentially be useful for many services: the Disability Resource Center, delivery services and shuttle services, mechanical engineering senior and project lead Tim Jung said. There are also some nursing homes and trucking companies that are interested in this technology.

But the team could be starting with something more simple: getting pizza.

“So for example, if we want it to go get us pizza at (Ciao!), we can have it start here, it would automatically go across campus and pick us up pizza and then come back,” computer engineering senior Michael Roberts said. “It’d be kind of cool.”

The 11-member autonomous vehicle team is using a golf cart because it’s small enough to be taken apart, but big enough to drive around in, mechanical engineering junior Ram Santos said. The golf cart can’t drive itself quite yet, but it’s coming along.

“It will be awhile before … somebody would actually be impressed by it,” Santos said.

What it can do

This technology is popular for vehicle collision avoidance, Jung said, citing vehicles that are able to sense cars in front of them and stop on their own. The golf cart does this through a basic sonar range finder to detect objects in front of it or to the sides, Jung said. Basically, the golf cart can be driven forward, sense an object in front of it, stop and start reversing.

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The next stage of detection, according to Jung, is to add a LIDAR — a remote sensing technology that measures distance by shining a laser on a target, and then analyzing that reflected light. The LIDAR will give the cart a 270 degrees view in front of it, allowing the team to map buildings, vehicles and other objects.

“By the end of the year, we’d like to have that fully integrated and possibly start doing basic obstacle courses,” Jung said.

The LIDAR is not a cheap piece of equipment: It cost the team $4,800 of the $5,000 grant they received from CPConnect — a service meant to help fund interdisciplinary projects in the STEM field. The team also received $1,500 and donated parts from the robotics club.

Santos and the three other mechanical engineers on the team are building a special bumper for the golf cart in order to protect the LIDAR.

The team wants to mount the LIDAR on the bumper, meaning it has to be stable enough that the LIDAR won’t fall off. Also, if the cart were to hit something at low speed, they don’t want the LIDAR to shatter, Santos said.

“Honestly building a bumper, being able to do it well in a way that isn’t trial and error, it’s more like a grad school thing,” he said. “A crash is really hard to model.”

He said progress on the bumper has been pretty slow.

The current goal for the team is to get the cart to go to a certain waypoint — on Google Maps, for example — so the golf cart will just atomically go there, Roberts said.

The Team

The team was founded two years ago to enter the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition, Jung said. But the members decided to switch over to this project instead, which was far more complex than what the competition called for.

“It seemed more of something that was of interest to members,” Jung said. “We’re doing it for fun.”

Computer engineering student Gerik Kubiak joined the team because it sounded like an interesting project.

“I mean, a golf cart that can drive itself? It sounded like something that I’d want to get involved in,” he said.

He is interested in the programming behind the project.

Electrical engineering sophomore and head electrical engineer Justin Ng was looking to join the robotics club when he came across the team. They were working on the cart and trying to deal with the electrical issues, he said.

“So I was invited to come take a look myself and try to solve some of the problems,” he said. “And eventually I took a bigger role and started contributing more to the electrical design of the golf cart.”

Each individual team member puts about 20 hours per week into the project. On Saturdays, they spend a dozen hours — from about 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. — working on the golf cart.

Want to help?

The robotics club has general meetings from 11 a.m. to noon in the Alan A. Erhart Agriculture (building 10) room 231. On Saturdays, the team has building days from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Jung said students don’t have to be engineers to participate.

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