Velocity Fund winners lead the self-driving vehicle revolution

Varden Labs prototype self-driving vehicle

Five months ago, Michael Skupien and Alex Rodrigues founded their company, Varden Labs, after a full year of research, concept development and brainstorming. Now, as one of the four Velocity fund $25K winners, the pair hope to drive the autonomous vehicle revolution, one golf cart at a time.

The two Faculty of Engineering students are currently working full time at Varden Labs as a part of the Conrad Centre's Enterprise Co-op (E Co-op) program, which allows students to work on their own business while earning co-op credit.

At Varden Labs, we are currently in the process of developing a prototype shuttle vehicle which is based around a golf cart's chassis. The vehicle can currently drive fully autonomously with no one in the vehicle and slow down/stop for obstacles when they are in the way.

Michael Skupien and Alex Rodrigues with their prototype vehicleMichael, who has six years of experience in competitive robotics and designed and built his own 3D printer, specializes in hardware and developed all the systems that control their prototype vehicle. Alex, who was ranked among the top 20 high school programmers in Canada, is the software and machine intelligence specialist and develops the algorithms that control the vehicle. Like Michael, he is no stranger to competitive robotics, with seven years of experience under his belt. 

Unlike large companies like Google, Varden Labs hopes to create self-driving shuttles specifically for controlled environments like resorts and corporate campuses.

Our goal is not to directly compete against existing car manufacturers. Instead, what we want to do is introduce autonomy into more controlled environments and at lower speeds, where not many companies are focusing on.  

A venture such as theirs, whose technology is still new and growing, is naturally not without challenges. Michael and Alex have had to overcome bugs in their sensors and GPS systems, which led them to collaborate with one of the sensor manufacturers to develop a solution. 

The newness of the whole self-driving vehicle space also means that the two of them are constantly researching and developing solutions to make their vehicle work. 

Alex and I sometimes spend full days just in front of our massive homemade whiteboard brainstorming ideas and developing the necessary algorithms to make things function properly.  Its no longer just plug and play, you really have to work hard to figure everything out.

Varden Labs recently took home the $25K prize at the Velocity Fund Finals (VFF) after working non-stop to build their prototype and refine it. 

The pair found the entire VFF experience was extremely positive, not just for the funding, but also for the opportunity to share in the innovative spirit that defines Waterloo.

Honestly, our favourite part about participating in VFF is listening to all of the other pitches and learning about all of the other companies that other Waterloo students are working on.  Velocity in general is an amazing program, and it really helps companies get recognized in the community and beyond.

The two-man team hopes to use their VFF winnings to look into cheaper alternatives for their existing GPS sensor in the the hopes that they can decrease the overall cost of their autonomous system. They are also planning on exploring a "black box" solution that contains all of their systems in a waterproof box to make installation into existing shuttles easier.

For Michael and Alex, whose passion for autonomous robots began when they were 12 years old, working on together their company has been an amazing journey.

We are the kids up till 4am on a Friday night in the garage working. This is not only our company, but it's our hobby, our passion, our love, our brain child, and we both love working on it.

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