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UNLV School of Engineering opens new lab for bots and drones

UNLV robotics and drone lab

Members of UNLV’s DARPA Challenge team warm up Metal Rebel for a demonstration.

The new UNLV Drones and Autonomous Systems Lab is in the back of a 99 Cents store building across the street from the Clark County Library on Flamingo. Entering the warehouse-like space through double doors on a flat, beige wall, it’s easy to think you’re in the wrong place.

All that completely contradicts Paul Oh’s vision. The UNLV engineering professor who directs the lab would like its acronym, DASL, to be pronounced “dazzle” in order to reflect its core value, “inspiring wonder.”

“In our line of work, there’s a concept called skunk works,” Oh says. “It’s a way of doing things unconventionally. We embrace that.”

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He is hoping his robotics team can dazzle judges and onlookers at the Defense Advanced Research Projects (DARPA) Challenge Finals, a robotics competition coming up June 5 in Pomona, Calif. UNLV’s team found out in March that it was one of 25 worldwide finalists in the contest, which gives robots one hour to navigate a fabricated disaster scene, performing tasks such as turning a valve, climbing stairs and driving a vehicle — all without communicating with their humans or using an external power source.

Oh has made the driving task a strategic focal point for his team. They’re hoping their bot, Metal Rebel, can Furious 7 his way to a big chunk of the $3.5 million in prizes at stake.

But Oh’s perspective on the DARPA Challenge is crystal clear: “Disaster relief research and development never stops,” he says. “Competitions come and go, but disasters can happen any time. It’s about saving victims, having a noble purpose. That’s what will transform lives.”

The upcoming DARPA competition is sucking up a lot of air in the lab at the moment, but there’s plenty else going on there besides. A small fleet of drones sits atop one table; others are stacked with CPUs, monitors, rotor blades, hardware and tools. A grad student in mechanical engineering, Paresh Brahmbhatt, is working on his thesis project: designing software to control the indoor navigational capability of a hospitality robot, Furo.

“It’s a perfect fit for Las Vegas,” he says. “You go to hotels and casinos here and how many people do you see who are standing around, looking for assistance. One of these (robots) could roam with a sign that says, ‘Ask me for help,’ and show them the way to the nearest Starbucks.”

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The public is invited to the grand opening of UNLV’s Drones and Autonomous Systems Lab today, April 23, 4:30-7 p.m. at 1325 E. Flamingo Rd. 

Desert Companion welcomed Heidi Kyser as staff writer in January 2014. In 2018, she was promoted to senior writer and producer, working for both DC and State of Nevada. She produced KNPR’s first podcast, the Edward R. Murrow Regional Award-winning Native Nevada, in 2020. The following year, she returned her focus full-time to Desert Companion, becoming Deputy Editor, which meant she was next in line to take over when longtime editor Andrew Kiraly left in July 2022.