Student Engineers Win the Day Against Peers at NASA
Meghan Brown posted on June 07, 2016 |
University of Oklahoma engineering students earn top spot in NASA’s Robo-Ops planetary rover competi...

The engineering students of today will be the engineering leaders of tomorrow – what better proof of this is there than seeing a university engineering team win out over a team of professional engineers?

This is exactly what the University of Oklahoma team achieved at the recent NASA Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Robo-Ops Challenge.

The challenge revolved around an engineering project to design, build and demonstrate a prototype robotic planetary rover. The UO Sooner Rover Team took top honors, besting seven other university teams, in addition to a team of professional engineers from NASA itself.

The University of Oklahoma’s Sooner Rover Team, with rover “Rovie McRoverface.” L to R: Nathan Justus, Brent Wolf, Dane Schoelen, Bill Doyle. Above: Alex Borgerding, Jacob Jordan, Janella Clary, Kevin Cotrone. (Image courtesy of Jawanza/University of Oklahoma.)

The University of Oklahoma’s Sooner Rover Team, with rover “Rovie McRoverface.” L to R: Nathan Justus, Brent Wolf, Dane Schoelen, Bill Doyle. Above: Alex Borgerding, Jacob Jordan, Janella Clary, Kevin Cotrone. (Image courtesy of Jawanza/University of Oklahoma.)

Now in its sixth year, the selected teams received $10,000 from NASA to build a remotely-operated rover prototype. The professional team from NASA received the same budget and followed the same rules and requirements as the school teams.

The Sooner Rover team’s unique design contributed considerably to their successful win.

“Instead of NASA’s traditional box structure, our rover used a spine, which is more robust and capable of handling obstacles,” explained Nathan Justus, an aerospace engineering senior at OU’s Galloghy School of Engineering and chief engineer of the nine-member team. “With this design, OU brought a giant caterpillar to a Jeep competition.”

Pat Troutman, human exploration strategic analysis lead at NASA's Langley Research Center added, "The winning team displayed incredible innovation. The rover from Oklahoma smashed all previous records by 50 percent. It was based on a Russian lunar rover from the 1960s, but with 21st century technology. It had a flawless performance and has opened a new paradigm for teleoperated rovers."

The challenge culminated with the eight university teams, their faculty advisors, and the professional team spending almost a week in competition at the “Rock Yard” testing grounds at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

Teams were required to control their rovers remotely, simulating the experience of an astronaut guiding rover exploration over long distances.

Cameras on the rovers transmit video from the site to the “mission control center” at each team’s home campus. The teams had to rely on these video feeds to be the rovers’ eyes, complete with an authentic communications delay.

The Univeristy of Oklahoma's rover at NASA's

The University of Oklahoma's rover at NASA's "Rock Yard" testing facility. (Image courtesy of University of Oklahoma.)

Most of the Sooner Rover team directed the rover remotely from the OU campus, while Justus and another teammate were on site at the Rock Yard competition.

Success hinged upon the rover’s abilities to climb, move over boulders, pick up and store rock samples and generally navigate the test location’s terrain which is a close approximation to what astronauts and robotic vehicles will encounter on extraterrestrial environments such as Mars.

Since one of the requirements was remote operation, the Sooner team developed an interesting control concept to help work around the communication delay.

“The rover’s arm [in Houston] is controlled by an exact copy (which is in Norman). The operator simply places the copy arm into position, and the rover arm mimics the position,” the team described on its Facebook page.

The rover’s physical performance at the Rock Yard only makes up part of the winning score, however. Teams were also evaluated on their outreach efforts to help spark interest in both human and robotic exploration, which is one of NASA’s guiding principles. 

The UO Sooner Rover team waged a strong outreach campaign as part of their project, encouraging interest from the general public and from students at the university level all the way down to elementary.

As part of their outreach initiative, the Sooner Rover team visited high school robotics competitions, conducted demonstrations on the UO campus and maintained an active Facebook page with updates and tracking their progress throughout the project. 

The rest of the scoring relied on the rover’s ability to successfully perform the required tasks during the hour-long test run, the adherence to NASA requirements and a technical paper detailing their innovations and design.

OU Associate dean John Antonio commented on the team’s win when they arrived back to campus after the competition. “As the first OU team whose plan was accepted into the contest and on behalf of all the college’s faculty, staff and students, you have made us so very proud.”

“Innovation drives competition and competition drives innovation. You have inspired us all,” Antonio added.

For more information on the competition, visit the RASC-AL Robo-Ops website, or the University of Oklahoma Sooner Rover Team’s website.

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