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Student-built model Mars rover competes at NASA

By MARCENE ROBINSON

Published June 5, 2014

Kevin Burke
“It’s amazing to see theory from the classroom, hobbies and a desire to do something cool merge to bring students and faculty together.”
Kevin Burke, assistant professor
Department of Electrical Engineering

With an Xbox controller in hand, UB students drive a model Mars rover over rocky terrain.

Only they’re not playing a video game. The students designed and assembled their own robotic vehicle, including a custom-made 3-D printed arm, to compete in a contest being held this week 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 featured eight teams of undergraduate and graduate students from UB, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the University at California, Berkeley and other schools.

To compete in the NASA contest, the teams had to build a rover that could navigate a series of obstacles in 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.

The catch? Although each team could send three students and a faculty adviser to Houston, the rover had to be controlled remotely by students at the team’s university.

The UB Space Bulls, which includes 16 engineering and communication students, sent commands to their rover, Astraeus I, over the Internet from the North Campus.

Unfortunately, the UB team was disqualified on the last day of the competition when its rover flipped over on its roof, spilling the rocks it had collected. It was unable to right itself.

According to contest rules, student teams had to build rovers that were 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 relayed live footage between UB and the NASA center.

The team worked under the guidance of Kevin Burke and Jennifer Zirnheld, 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,” Burke told the UB Reporter.

Each team received $10,000 to cover travel expenses, equipment purchases and software. The top three winners receive a cash prize of $6,000, $3,000 and $2,000, respectively. And, of course, bragging rights.

“I’m excited about going to Houston,” William Dell’Anno, Space Bulls team leader and 2014 electrical engineering graduate, said before leaving Buffalo. “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.”