BUFFALO, N.Y. – With an Xbox controller in hand,
University at Buffalo students will drive a model Mars rover over
Only they’re not playing a video game. The students have
designed and assembled their own robotic vehicle, including a
custom made 3-D printed arm, to compete in a contest June 3 at
NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Sponsored by NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace, the
RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops Competition features eight teams of
undergraduate and graduate students from UB, the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology, the University at California-Berkeley and
The teams must build a rover that can navigate a series of
obstacles in NASA Johnson’s Rockyard, a test area that
simulates Mars. Among the tasks the robot must complete: climb a
30-degree slope, cross sand and gravel pits, and collect rock
samples up to 8 centimeters.
The catch? Although each team can send three students and a
faculty advisor to Houston, the rover must be controlled remotely
by students at the team’s university.
The UB Space Bulls, which includes 16 engineering and
communications students, will send commands to their rover,
Astraeus I, over the Internet from UB’s North Campus.
The Space Bulls plan to live stream the contest on June 3 at the
following Web address: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/robo-ops.
There is also a YouTube page for more videos at: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UC4YCL5XrDmo9lU_pVko6Ggg
Media interested in viewing the robot and speaking with the
students should contact Marcene Robinson, Office of University
Communications, at 716-207-5814 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
According to contest rules, the rover must be less than 1 meter
long, 1 meter wide and 1/2 meter tall.
The UB vehicle features four-wheel drive, an independent
suspension system on each wheel and tank-style steering. Although
most parts were purchased, students built the suspension, wheels
and mechanical arm. The latter was fabricated in a UB engineering
lab with a 3-D printer.
Four cameras on the rover will relay live footage between UB and
the NASA center.
The Space Bulls competed in two previous rover competitions but
did not win. This year’s entry, however, is promising.
Astraeus I is larger than previous rovers and it’s able to
drive over 10 centimeter rocks. The vehicle also can climb
60-degree inclines, double the rockyard slopes.
The team works under the guidance of Kevin Burke, PhD, and
Jennifer Zirnheld, PhD, both assistant professors in the Department
of Electrical Engineering.
“It’s amazing to see theory from the classroom,
hobbies and a desire to do something cool merge to bring students
and faculty together to accomplish tasks that seem simplistic, yet
have such huge implications to the space exploration experience for
NASA, and aspiring engineers and computer scientists,” says
Each team received $10,000 to cover travel expenses, equipment
purchases and software. The top three winners will receive a cash
prize of $6,000, $3,000 and $2,000, respectively. And, of course,
“I’m excited about going to Houston,” says
William Dell’Anno, Space Bulls team leader and 2014
electrical engineering graduate. “I get to go to the Johnson
Space Center, meet great engineers and watch the rover. It’s
a great end to my time here at UB.”