Published June 11, 2015
Mike Bill was frazzled.
The remote-controlled arm he needed to deploy to grab rocks at a NASA-sponsored Mars rover competition wouldn’t budge.
To complicate things, the rover was in Texas. Bill, a rising senior, was inside Bonner Hall on UB’s North Campus.
Thankfully, he had backup. Fellow students — members of the UB Space Bulls — were on the ground at NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston. They quickly fixed the arm’s motor, enabling Bill, who maintained his composure, to help complete the mission.
The extra effort paid off. The Space Bulls placed third — their best finish yet — at the RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops Competition on June 4-5.
“It was very nerve-racking,” says Bill, a Syracuse native majoring in mechanical engineering. “But everyone felt more confident once the mission started and we were able to collect the first three rocks in under 15 minutes.”
Organized by the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA) in Virginia, the contest attracted entries from 34 teams of undergraduate and graduate students from colleges and universities nationwide. Only eight were chosen to participate, based upon designs they submitted in the fall to NIA and NASA, both of which funded the competition.
This year was the fourth time in five years that organizers chose the Space Bulls, a student-run team that receives guidance from faculty members and financial support to compete from UB’s Center for Undergraduate Research and Creative Activities.
Teams must navigate their rover through a series of obstacles at NASA Johnson’s Rockyard, a test area that simulates Mars. Among the tasks the robot had to complete: climb a 30-degree slope, cross sand and gravel pits, and collect rock samples up to 8 centimeters.
In addition to four cameras that relay live footage between Buffalo and Texas, the UB vehicle includes a mechanical arm that students built using a 3-D printer in one of the university’s engineering labs.
At the contest, the arm’s motor failed, forcing the Space Bulls to act quickly — they needed to make the fix within 10 minutes or they’d be disqualified. The students in Houston came prepared. Working in the hot Texas sun, they replaced the motor with a few minutes to spare and resumed the mission.
The effort prompted organizers to give the Space Bulls the RASC-y prize for best “pit stop,” a humorous award that included Batman-themed, two-way radios to match the team’s Batman-themed hats.
With the arm fixed, Bill and his fellow Space Bulls at Bonner put the rover through its paces, navigating hills and rocky terrain while fighting a nasty glare from the sun and sand.
The Space Bulls’ third-place finish was its best yet. Here are the final results:
1: University of Maryland
2: West Virginia University
4: University of Utah
5: Virginia Tech
6 (tie): San Jose State University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology
8: California State University, Long Beach
Livio Forte, a rising senior from Cold Spring Harbor, New York, was one of the Space Bulls to travel to NASA Johnson, home to NASA’s astronaut corps. He says the contest was a terrific hands-on project.
“The design process can get stressful when you try to balance it and course work, but in the end, the whole competition is a learning experience and a lot of fun,” he says.
Patrick Troutman, a contest organizer and senior systems engineer at NASA Langley Research Center in Virginia, says the event “exposes NASA experts to the exceptional students that participate.” Plus, he says, the students get front-row access to NASA activities and people.
As an added bonus, NASA is considering using the best elements of the student-designed robots to create its own test model for next year’s competition, he says.
“The robots have evolved to a point where it’s time to take the best of the innovations and combine them into a test mule,” Troutman says. “The timing is fortuitous, as a decade from now humans may have access to lunar orbit for tele-operating robots on the surface of the moon, and a decade beyond that humans may be in orbit around Mars tele-operating on the surface of Mars.”
The Space Bulls work under the guidance of Kevin Burke, teaching assistant professor, and Jennifer Zirnheld, assistant professor, both in the Department of Electrical Engineering. Also providing assistance is Karthik Dantu, assistant professor of computer science and engineering.
“The competition is an amazing experience,” Zirnheld says. “Students get to design and build their own model rover, test it against some of the best universities in the world and in front of some of foremost experts in space explorations at NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace.
“We’re looking forward to next year,” she adds.