Students build model Mars rover for NASA-sponsored competition

From Buffalo, they will use game controllers, cameras and the Internet to guide the robot’s movements in Houston

Release Date: May 30, 2014 This content is archived.

Kevin Burke, PhD.

Kevin Burke, PhD

“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, PhD, assistant professor of electrical engineering
University at Buffalo

BUFFALO, N.Y. – With an Xbox controller in hand, University at Buffalo students will drive a model Mars rover over rocky terrain.

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 other schools.

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:

There is also a YouTube page for more videos at:

Media interested in viewing the robot and speaking with the students should contact Marcene Robinson, Office of University Communications, at 716-207-5814 or

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 Burke.

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, bragging rights.

“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.”

Media Contact Information

Marcene Robinson is a former staff writer in University Communications. To contact UB's media relations staff, email or visit our list of current university media contacts.