Got Potholes? This Student Team Has a Solution
Three WPI students earned first place honors and a $10,000 prize recently in the Second Annual SICK Challenge. SICK Inc., named for the late Dr. Erwin Sick, was founded in 1946 in Germany and is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of sensors, safety systems, machine vision, encoders and automatic identification products for industrial applications. The competition challenges students to develop a solution to a problem using SICK Inc. lidar technology.
The WPI trio—recently graduated seniors Noah Budris of Oxford, Conn., who majored in mechanical engineering; Daniel Pelaez, also of Oxford, Conn., who majored in electrical and computer engineering; along with rising fifth-year senior Noah Parker of Arlington, Mass., who is majoring in computer science and robotics engineering—developed a product dubbed ROADGNAR (described below), which detects, analyzes, and measures potholes, cracks, and other pavement deficiencies that cause roadways to be in poor condition.
With this data, local governments can better prioritize what roads need to be repaired based on their condition. Alex Wyglinski, professor of electrical and computer engineering, served as faculty advisor for the team, and said “the students drove this effort 100 percent.”
The Herd caught up with the students recently to learn more about their reaction to winning the virtual competition, the technology and their roles, and their plans for the future.
The Herd: Congratulations on this big win. What was your reaction to winning the SICK challenge?
Daniel Pelaez: I was in shock. We didn’t really expect it. We knew we did a good job and I thought we’d come in third place or runners-up. When we weren’t announced for third or second, I thought, “Well, we tried our best.” I looked away from my computer for a little bit and thought someone else won. And then I saw all of our faces on the screen of the virtual presentation of the winners and called Noah Budris and texted Noah Parker and said “Guys, this is crazy!”
The Herd: How’d you come up with the name ROADGNAR?
Noah Budris: Originally, it started as ROADAR which is a combination of road and lidar (light detection and ranging). Then we changed it to ROADGNAR because our product benefits the gnarly roads of New England.
The Herd: What problem were you trying to solve?
DP: This problem came to us long before we even were presented with the opportunity to participate in the SICK Challenge. In New England, some of the roads are pretty horrendous in places, and we wondered what towns and cities were doing to identify and fix large potholes on a timely basis. I then contacted my good friend, Noah Budris, who I’ve known all of my life and said, “Hey, man, let’s look into this problem.” In the spring of 2019, we ended up being runners-up for the Strage Innovation Award at WPI for an early ideation of ROADGNAR. And then we found out about SICK, applied for the competition, and got our sensor.
The Herd: What are the components of ROADGNAR and how does it work?
NB: Right now there’s the sensor mounting system: a modified bike rack that attaches to the trunk of a car. The lidar sensor connects to the in-car processing computer—the NVIDIA Jetson TX2—where Noah Parker’s code runs and processes the 2D scans in real-time into a 3D roadmap.
The Herd: Tell me about your roles.
DP: My role is project manager; I’m involved with the development of the technology of the system, and I also manage the business aspects of our start-up.
NB: My main role was working through all of the mechanical aspects of this project. The first big thing I did was build a makeshift testing track in my basement that we could put the lidar scanner on, along with the wheel encoder, just so we could prove the feasibility of the concept by examining the readings from the lidar. From there, it was just moving the parts onto a vehicle.
Noah Parker: My role is to use my software background to write software to interface with the lidar module and keep track of data over time, detecting potholes, and displaying the scans on a screen. The lidar module, a spinning laser, has two dimensions—an angle and a distance. But when you poll the lidar module over time, you get a third dimension, and a 3D map of the road.
The Herd: I understand you talked to 17 public works departments across Massachusetts to get an understanding of their challenges with road repairs. How did you manage that, and what did you find?
DP: We had an opportunity to secure a WPI I-Corps grant of $3,000, which enabled us to travel around and gain knowledge from various cities and towns about their current practices, determine if our solution was viable, and see if they’d be willing to purchase a system. We found out that most towns hire consultants and it can take months to figure out the conditions of the roadway and it can be very expensive.
The Herd: So, what’s your differentiator?
NB: It’s automating the process of detecting potholes by using precise lasers where you can get a very accurate and non-subjective reading every time that is much faster and less expensive than traditional methods.
The Herd: Do you have a patent?
NB: Yes, we have filed for and obtained a provisional patent for the technology. In the future, we plan to pursue a utility patent once we have refined our product and acquired further funding.
The Herd: What does the future hold for all of you?
DP: I’ll be working at Raytheon Technologies in Woburn, Mass., as a systems engineer. I’m planning to continue to work on our product as we proceed to launch our startup.
NB: I am starting as a nuclear decommissioning engineer for Orano USA in Hudson, Mass., and will continue to work on this project as well.
NP: I’ll be returning to WPI for my fifth year to complete my two degrees and continue to work full-time on this product.
-By Andy Baron