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The parking lot at Stabler Arena is the practice spot for Little Ben, a robotic Toyota Prius. Ben was designed by the Ben Franklin Racing Team – a collaboration of faculty and students from Lehigh University and UPenn, with engineers from Lockheed Martin's Advanced Technology Laboratory.
Little Ben recently advanced to the Nationals of the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) international robot car competition. Little Ben will become part of the DARPA Urban challenge, where he will compete in a 60-mile course with no input from his team of humans. The car will use GPS, lasers, cameras, and other sensors to maneuver through the course with other traffic.
Little Ben's skills are refined through practice runs in the Stabler Arena parking lot. "We needed the space, which is hard to come by at UPenn and Lehigh's main campus," says John Spletzer, Lehigh professor and the University's lead on the project. "At Stabler, we can set up road courses and simulate traffic. Our next course for the test run will be larger since we've made it to Nationals." This past July, over 50 spectators came to witness DARPA's evaluation of Little Ben's driving skills. Ben's performance during these tests was flawless, and earned the team an invitation to the National Qualification Event in late October.
The Lehigh/UPenn team, which is ten members strong, is half the size of some of the other competing teams, yet their hard work is certainly paying off. As the team prepares for Nationals, Little Ben will continue making his rounds in Stabler's parking lot. "It's invigorating to be involved in something different here," Rich Fritz, director of Stabler says. "I've been here since Stabler opened and this is a first for me!"