Feature Friday: A Self-Driving Golf Cart for Retirement Communities

Posted on: March 31, 2023

Bobby sitting on golf cart in lab

In December 2022, Bobby Perkins was among the first graduates of JMU’s brand new Information Technology (IT) undergraduate program. At JMU, he is best known for his role in JMU Libraries helping faculty with Zoom, projectors, and microphones, but over the last several years, he was also one of the undergraduate students who worked to create an autonomous self-driving golf cart as part of the JACart Research Group. “I was on the electronics team,” he recalls. “Basically we were designing the interface electronics between the autonomous controller and the cart controller itself.”

Bobby working on colorful electronic wires under the seat of the golf cart

While most of the project took place in JMU X-Labs and King Hall as part of a transdisciplinary course experience, Bobby knew from his job in JMU Libraries that students from any major can access the equipment and friendly, knowledgeable staff in the JMU Libraries makerspace, The Makery. There, he created and tested prototypes to bring back to his team–a great example of how the various makerspaces at JMU support each other and offer different ways of meeting the innovative, creative, and academic needs of JMU students and faculty. Keep reading to learn more about the golf cart project and JMU Libraries services you can use, including The Makery and classroom technology help.


So…how cool is the self-driving golf cart?

Bobby using touch screen display showing a map next to the steering wheel of the golf cart

It’s pretty cool. In 2019, we were just getting it to drive itself at the end of the semester. Now it’s evolved into a self-driving golf cart that’s got a giant, 22 inch or 24 inch touchscreen display on the front of it with a satellite view map of the campus area that you can drive it on. You can select your waypoints, you know, wherever you’d like to go, from the giant touch screen. It’s also got voice activation features as well, so you can tell it where you want to go, you can tell it to stop, you can tell it to pull over, new destination, that kind of stuff. So it really has evolved quite a bit since 2019.

Did your professor know how you should accomplish this, or did the students discover how to make it work?

That was one of the things I really enjoyed about this project is that we had 3 or 4 advising professors, and they really are just advisors. They wouldn’t tell you what to do or how to do it, but if you wanted advice you could ask them. It was very much a self-guided kind of thing. 

Which faculty are involved with the project?

Samy El-Tawab and Nathan Sprague are the core professors with the project, and then there’s other professors [Jason Forsyth, Ahmad Salman, and Michael Stewart] that help out when their expertise is needed. There’s an outside advisor [retired engineer Dick Shimp] as well.

What is the end goal of this project? 

Yeah, the end goal is amazing–the goal is to have a fleet of self-driving golf carts that will be deployed at local retirement communities. There’s a couple of research goals that are built into this as well, so it’s not just providing self-driving golf carts to the community. It’s designed as a research project itself to see how self-guided golf carts can be used to provide the service for the retirement community and also monitor the health of the riders as they’re riding it. So it’s got a couple of cameras that can keep an eye on the passengers so you can tell if they’re happy, comfortable, scared, or if they’re having a health issue like a heart attack or a stroke. All the stuff we’re doing is so that we can do an additional research project after we can deploy it into the retirement communities themselves. 

So…what brought you to The Makery?

I needed some test equipment that we didn’t really have in the lab where we were working at the time. So I went to the Rose Library makerspace, which has all the electronic stuff that I would need to build that kind of circuit plus the test equipment. I chose to do the prototyping there, and then take it down to X-Labs where we installed it on the cart. 

What makes The Makery unique?

As an IT student, The Makery gave me a space for working on stuff, both inside and outside this class–personal projects that I work on as well. If it’s open, I can go down there and work on whatever I want, which is great. And that’s really what I get from The Makery. Say a student wants to use 3D printers. If they’re an engineering major or an art major, they probably have open access to 3D printers in some of the spaces for those majors. But what about a nursing student? They’re probably not going to have access to 3D printers and stuff like that. 

Why does JMU Libraries allow people to use The Makery for personal projects?

Crafting in whatever form is just good for the soul, right? You know, it’s the creative outlet–it’s an important part of your mental wellbeing as a person, your personal development, right? Having a space with access to that equipment needed for doing creative projects is really important. And you’re going to get exposed to other stuff in the makerspace that you might not necessarily go there for initially, right? Like sometimes when I was working on my electronics projects, I would have like blinky lights and, you know, buzzing noises, and there’d be students walking in to do some vinyl cutting from a Photoshop design that they did in one of their classes, or to print a 3D model for a class, and they’d see me working on the bench with all my little blinking lights and ask what I was working on, which is a way that I could explain JACart program and and electronics in general. 

Can faculty use The Makery for class projects?

Absolutely!  I would recommend contacting The Makery to schedule a time so they can be prepared to host the students.  We, the Libraries, even have instructional designers and educational technologists that can assist with a tailored training session for the project. I would recommend filling out the Libraries Consultation & Instruction form if a professor is interested in using The Makery for a class project.

So tell us about your day job!

Sure, sure. So I work with classroom technology. I am the AV programmer and network specialist, so we install the audiovisual systems in the classrooms–the projectors, the speaker systems, microphones, that kind of stuff. And then we do one-on-one training for professors on the equipment. So we’ve been doing a lot of Zoom help. I’m available for service calls and training for the faculty members and classrooms, and then over our break periods is when we do the hard work–we upgrade classrooms, install new equipment, and stuff like that. 

Can any department request classroom technology training for their faculty?

Absolutely. Yeah, yeah, if any professor would like individual or group training, they can contact us. We’ve got good availability for that kind of training. We can also meet up with professors. Say they don’t typically use a Zoom call during their class and they want to make sure it’s set up and working correctly before their guest lecturer appears–we can come 15 minutes before to make sure they’re comfortable with using it for their Zoom guest. All they have to do is shoot an email to tchelp@jmu.edu or call us at 540-568-6799, and we’d be happy to schedule that for them.

What are your favorite Shenandoah Valley restaurants or attractions?

As a Stauntonian, I have a strong love for what my little town has to offer. [Artist] Rocketzoom Snodgrass recently completed an awesome mural in Redbeard Brewing in collaboration with some other fantastic local artists. Some friends of mine will be opening Slyde at 23 soon but I was able to make it their soft opening this week and loved the food and atmosphere. And of course I love Chicano Boy [Taco] which just opened a second location in Richmond and even catered an event for one of our senators last year.
This story is part of our Feature Friday Q&A series. Thank you for supporting JMU Libraries.

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