The pioneers of rough terrain vehicles at the Vehicle and Robotics Engineering Lab (VREL)

University of Alabama Birmingham - Vehicle and Robotics Engineering Lab (VREL) have deep history with the pioneers of rough terrain vehicles.


Yes its a pretty rough picture...

Here we are in Alabama again. This state seem to have all the top dawgs in ground robotics applications. A few weeks ago we explored our friends at Alabama Astrobotics with their godlike mining team and today we have their equally excellent cousins at the University of Alabama Birmingham.

The Vehicle and Robotics Engineering Lab at the University of Alabama Birmingham is a research facility dedicated to vehicle engineering and robotics research with a focus on developing rough-terrain vehicles with intelligent systems.

The folks at VREL folks are very good with Unmanned Ground Vehicles and the optimization of systems and control of multi-wheel vehicles on rough terrain. Naturally with their expertise in the subject, they also work with many other academic institutions, government agencies and leaders in industry.

Here are some examples of a UGV robot or multi-wheel system for rough terrain. 

Warthog from Clearpath Robotics

Warthog UGV

Landshark from Black-i-Robotics


and also our friends from AION Robotics...All the way from Colorado...

The origins of the Vehicle and Robotics Engineering Lab had its humble beginnings with Dr. Anatoliy Lefarov, an outstanding engineer, scientist, educator and designer of tractors and automobiles in Ukraine. He was born in rural family of intellectuals and graduated from a technical school of agriculture in 1932.

When he was 21 years old, he started working as a grain harvesting combine operator using a Farmall brand tractor built by the American company International harvester.

VREL anatoliy lefarov

The Farmall tractor, where is all started..

Farmall International Harvester

In 1940, Dr. Lefarov graduated with honors from Leningrad Industrial Institute and went to work at the Gorkiy Automotive Compan (GAZ) under the guidance the founders of the school of off-road equipment such as the infamous "off-roadsters king" - Vitaliy Andreyevich Grachev. This was the time Dr. Lefarov's scientific research and work became his entire life purpose.

After World War II, The soviet union sent Dr. Lefarov to Minsk, the capital of Belarus. There he designed the MAZ-501 automobile which was the first truck in the U.S.S.R. to employ a differential in the transfer case - a significant achievement for Dr. Lefarov as a designer and engineer. Below is a picture of the MAZ 501 used for hauling timber.

MAZ 501

Dr. Lefarov directly participated in the upbringing of the gear type free running differentials for heavy duty MAZ tractors including the legendary MAZ 535 pictured below.

MAZ 535

Dr. Lefarov was passionate with his work and was the first to call attention to the importance of intellectual property in modern society in his engineering developments and scientific studies. His colleagues also pointed out that he was the first to point out the relationship between engineering development and scientific studies. 

A quick interesting note would be that Dr. Lefarov also grew up with the engineering brought by Henry Ford to Russia in the 1920s and developed his own skills and expertise to be used there in his heavy duty off-road machines.

Most importantly, no matter where we are from, our technologies and innovations are interlinked and we all strive to create things that will improve lives. We are the same people and should aim to work together even if we have different ideologies and opinions on subjects.

Just face it,  some of us enjoy watching big rugged wheels on suspensions chugging along on rough terrain with the sound of heavy engines pushing forward...hauling heavy equipment...yeah you get it..take a break and watch this...

Dr. Lefarov also once said, the engineer must remember any redundant line on the blueprint on the design may require and additional machine tool maybe an entire automatic production line. Work closely with the builders and design what can be built and keep it simple.

Bringing it back to America..

His son Dr. Victor Lefarov started the Vehicle and Robotics Engineering Laboratory as the continuation of the R&D Group of Multi-Wheel Vehicles that was established by Dr. Lefarov in 1963.  Hopefully by now you understand the point we are trying to make is that Dr. Lefarov's outstanding and innovative work with off-road heavy duty vehicles is the main force and spirit that drive VREL at University of Alabama.

Today the VREL lab is soundly directed by Dr. Vladimir V Vantsevich, PhD, ScD, ASME fellow, also a top notch engineer, researcher and founding director of VREL.


He is the author of 6 technical books and more than 170 research articles and serves as an editor of several techiniIt brings very good feelings that Dr. Vantsevich is in charge of VREL and doing a splendid job under his scientific guidance.

All the years of research, history, skills and understanding of automotive off-road vehicles have brought dividends to VREL and its students.

Some extraordinary achievements of VREL students so far:

Mechanical Engineering student Jordan Whitson received the Science, Mathematics and Research for Transformation Scholarship for Service Program from the US Department of Defense.

Jordan Whitson

If you see this guy, he probably knows a lot about rugged UGVs so feel free to have discussions with him about it.

Dr. Vlademir is mentoring Jordan and currently they are both working on the US Army Ground Vehicle Systems Center.

According to Jordan, they will work toward “developing specific simulation model  to accurately predict conditions a tire will engage to optimize torque and power-train distributions to maximize mobility for autonomous ground vehicles in severe terrain conditions”.

Ph.D student Siyuan “Hunter” Zyang achieved 2nd place out of 64 presentations at the 2019 Science and Technology Open house.

Siyuan hunter zyang

Mr. Hunter presented about the improvement of Mobility and Stability of Motion of Skid Steering UGV with new individually steering inputs on Severe Terrain.

As we can clearly see, VREL is clearly pushing their research and students to be the best when it comes to unmanned ground vehicles and their operations on rough terrains - clearly the path Dr. Lefarov took. These expertise and sound engineering on rough terrain vehicles have been in development since 1912 during Dr. Lefarov days.

If you are insterested in joining the UGV rough terrain team, the class ME360 is available and the VREL will be an asset you can utilize to hone your skills in building unmanned rough terrain robots.

We are impressed by the dedication of the all-wheel masters in building an off-road UGV powerhouse here at University of Alabama Birmingham. We look with forward with enthusiasm to seeing more innovation and leadership in this field coming from VREL.

We leave you today with the wheels that change shape - Reconfigurable Wheel Track (RWT).

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