FROSTBURG — Frostburg State University professor Jamil Abdo and one of his students, Spencer Hamblin, have been continuing research about devices necessary for self-driving cars despite hardships from the coronavirus.

Abdo, an associate professor of mechanical engineering, received a grant for the research in January, which is the first intensive study of its kind.

Self-driving cars use light detection and ranging sensors, or LiDARs, to provide information on the car’s surroundings and to recognize and detect objects on the road. Frostburg State University’s research aims to test the performance of LiDARs in harsh weather conditions, including snow and fog.

“The future of driving is autonomous,” Abdo said.

Abdo said that the LiDARs function similarly to a GPS in pinpointing a vehicle’s location and is crucial to the success of a self-driving car. He said that the accuracy of these devices in bad weather conditions have not yet gone through any experimental modeling or deep studies.

“These devices … need to be more accurate. One inch can make a big difference if someone’s passing you on the road,” he said. “You could hit a person, or you could not hit a person.”

Abdo said that he received the grant in January and finished the paperwork in February. He said Frostburg’s rainy, foggy and snowy weather gives it high potential for testing devices such as these LiDARs.

The research was also conducted in the midst of discussion about a potential center for autonomous vehicles in Frostburg, according to Abdo. While no decision regarding the center has been reached, he hopes that the research can help establish such a center.

“I felt good to get such grant. (It) enabled me to support my research and students,” Abdo said in an email.

Abdo and Hamblin worked on the project in-person from February until March, when FSU’s classes moved online. They recently began remote work on the project in June with biweekly meetings to review what they had worked on.

“Without (coronavirus) it’d be much easier, but we are adapting to this kind of life,” Abdo said.

Due to COVID-19, Abdo and Hamblin decided that each would keep one LiDAR to work on individually. They then discuss their progress over the phone or during online or bi-weekly in-person meetings. Hamblin said the units are “extremely expensive and require great care.”

“I’m handling this unit, and I’ve never handled anything more carefully in my life,” he said. Their initial timeline for research and data collection got pushed back due to their hiatus, which caused them to miss a period of snow and fog in the spring. Now the pair must wait until fall or winter to test the LiDARs in the harsh weather conditions.

Hamblin, a fifth-year student from Silver Spring majoring in electrical engineering and minoring in computer science, was recommended to help with the research after working as a teaching assistant for one of Abdo’s classes.

“I’m definitely doing things I haven’t done before, and I’m learning as I go,” he said. “It’s exciting to constantly be trying new things.

“At first, I was wondering who would help with this project,” Abdo said.

“(Hamblin) is really very dedicated, very knowledgeable,” Abdo said. “I depend on him for lots of things, and he always come up with good answers, he always ready to do this and that, and that’s something that’s unexpected from undergraduate students, but he’s really doing a good job.”

Abdo said that he hopes to begin data gathering in September and anticipates that the project will be completed in February 2021.

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