Industry-driven research gives firms in Louisiana’s Acadiana Region a competitive advantage, says Ramesh Kolluru, vice president for research at UL Lafayette. It’s an edge made more powerful by the Lafayette community’s investment in ultrafast broadband fiber that supports — even makes possible — key aspects of that research.
“This is a community with a tradition of entrepreneurship and technological innovation, and that tradition carries over to what happens at the university,” Kolluru says.
In 2012, for instance, the university partnered with Philadelphia’s Drexel University to create the Center for Visual and Decision Informatics. The industry-funded center at UL Lafayette is the nation’s only National Science Foundation Center of Excellence in the realm of big data.
In two years, the center helped the university license 16 new technologies based on the work of its researchers. But the center and those breakthroughs “were made possible because of Lafayette’s (fiber) infrastructure,” says Kolluru, who describes the center as “transformative in our ability to partner with IT industry, just like we have been teaming up with energy and pharmaceutical companies for years.”
The university’s record as a leading computer science innovator and the city’s high-capacity fiber helped Lafayette earn a spot in a national initiative to find solutions for six areas of priority, including health care.
Through that initiative, UL Lafayette partners with regional healthcare providers and public schools to develop technology for monitoring patients, reducing childhood obesity and enabling the elderly to live at home. Lafayette is one of 25 cities contributing to the Living Lab for Health Innovations.
“Some of the nation’s most creative ideas in health care are being, and will be, developed here in Lafayette,” he says.
Meanwhile, university researchers are devising new defenses against harmful “malware” computer programs that wreak havoc on Internet-based systems.
Malware-analysis expert Arun Lakhotia, a professor in UL Lafayette’s School of Computing and Informatics, works with Charles River Analytics of Cambridge, Massachusetts, to create software that detects such attacks and prevents damage.
Their partnership secured an Air Force contract to build a cloud-based system that recognizes and responds to changing malware threats. The project, Semi-Supervised Algorithms Against Malware Evolution, will be essential in fending off hacking attempts on a growing range of technologies, including personal communications devices, Lakhotia explains.
“Hacking attempts double each year, so we need more intelligent and automated systems to detect them and protect against them,” Lakhotia says.
Lakhotia played a prominent role in the university’s development of a self-driving car. The university’s CajunBot vehicle repeatedly reached the semifinals of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Grand Challenge races that pit robotic vehicles developed by university teams against each other.
UL Lafayette’s success with CajunBot prompted Louisiana-based Swiftships to seek Lakhotia’s expertise in developing an unmanned, high-performance military riverboat.
Self-driving boats existed, but they generally were slow-moving watercraft used for survey work, explains Joshua Vaughan, assistant professor of mechanical engineering in the UL Lafayette College of Engineering. Swiftships last year asked the university to develop technology for a very different kind of self-driving boat: a 35-foot, water-jet-propelled riverboat capable of cruising at 50 knots per hour and making a 360-degree turn on demand.
Already, UL Lafayette has developed iPhone and iPad apps to remotely operate the Swiftships high-performance Anaconda boat. Additional work will involve substituting those remote systems with automated ones, Vaughan explains.
Basic autonomy, or waypoint tracking in the absence of obstacles, has been achieved. Next, researchers will deploy systems for the Anaconda that sense objects in the boat’s path, while also detecting and responding to threats from attacks, and sensing changes in water depth — all at high rates of speed and sometimes while under attack.
“The goal is a boat that can complete high-speed, dangerous missions without putting troops in harm’s way,” Vaughan says.