European Rover Challenge Seeks the Perfect Martian Rover

The European Rover Challenge prepares young engineers for their future in the space industry in more ways than one.

Mars as imagined by astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot in 1877. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

Mars as imagined by astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot in 1877. (Image courtesy of Wikipedia.)

For well over 4,000 years, as wisemen gave way to astronomers, cosmologist and engineers, humankind has been fascinated by the sole red dot that hangs in our sky. Since its discovery, that red dot, which would eventually be named Mars, has inspired ideas of exploration and extraterrestrial life, and in this new century, the quest to transform Mars from an undiscovered country to land that might house human life has gained a tremendous amount of momentum.

While most of the headlines that concern Mars orbit around the ambitions of SpaceX, NASA’s rovers and a handful of projects that aim to establish colonies on the Red Planet, another equally important Martian endeavor is taking place here on Earth.

The European Rover Challenge (ERC) was created in 2014 by the Polish branch of the Mars Society. As its name suggests, the ERC gathers together university students in a competition to develop a robotic rover and push their collective engineering potential.

This past October, 60 university teams hailing from 12 nations landed in Jasionka, Poland, to compete in the ERC. Upon arrival, each team was asked to put the rover that they had painstakingly designed through an obstacle course in which they would obtain samples from simulated Martian soil, perform a complex payload delivery task, navigate difficult terrain with little supervision and operate electrical rack units where electrical switches and other components were mounted. However, before the rovers ever landed on the faux-Martian soil, there was a lot of design work to do in SOLIDWORKS Education. To learn more about the competition, I spoke with Adrian Czapla, a SOLIDWORKS reseller who worked closely with many of the Polish teams participating in the ERC.

As you can imagine, designing a rover isn’t a simple task. When you break it down, a rover is essentially a robot that can do very precise work in the most inhospitable places. They represent the front line of discovery, and they have to be built with such precision and mechanical reliability that they can be sent to far-off worlds where they’ll never be serviced by a human again.

Sounds like a particularly daunting task, doesn’t it?

To Czapla, that daunting task was brought into stark relief by the ingenuity of the young engineers that he saw working to win ERC gold.

“Every robot that I saw at the competition impressed me” said Czapla. “The cleverness that each team exhibited was exciting and gave you hope that the next generation of engineers will continue to push the boundaries of robotic design.”

A rover working its way through the ERC competition’s obstacle course.(Image courtesy of ERC.)

A rover working its way through the ERC competition’s obstacle course.(Image courtesy of ERC.)

To create their designs, students were given a free license and training in SOLIDWORKS CAD software. Within a few days of sitting down at their workstations, Czapla could see that the students he was working with were grasping modeling concepts and transforming their engineering ideas into actual designs. As the student’s designs progressed, new tutorials, including instruction on simulation, were introduced so that their rover designs could be validated for rigidity and durability. Finally, at the end, SOLIDWORKS’ in-package renderer was used to create marketing graphics so that students could show ERC judges and event attendees exactly why their machines were best built to survive and work effectively on Mars.

But beyond each team’s final rover design, Czapla also found himself fascinated with how professionally each team worked, and how that professionalism evolved organically.

“Many of the teams broke down into very structured units. One group of students would focus on designing the chassis of their rover, another team would work on actuation, etc. Some student’s even took it upon themselves to develop their own marketing.”

As Czapla put it, it shouldn’t go unnoticed that these student engineers were quickly learning one of the core lessons of the ERC competition. Engineering is a creative discipline, but it requires individuals with various talents working together in a structured environment to reach a common goal. That’s how engineering departments working in space industries across the globe operate, and getting a first taste of that environment and atmosphere will prepare these students for the day when they wind up in industry.

The sophistication on display at the ERC is a harbinger of good things to come for the future of robotic development, a point that Lukasz Wilczynski, CEO of the European Space Foundation and the founder of ERC, was quick to point out.

“The space business means huge money [as it effects] everyday life… Space technologies are used in many everyday places including places as familiar as the kitchens,” said Wilczynsk. “These annual meetings are not only important international robotic and space-related events, but also places where knowledge and experiences are exchanged. Attending the ERC also means being able to learn the possibilities of one’s career in the space sector.”

As the horizon for human habitation of Mars nears, and research using tools like SOLIDWORKS continues, young engineers like those who participate in the ERC will be in the vanguard of designers shaping how future rovers will operate. Beyond that they’ll also be shaping the look and function of off world habitats and designing critical mission criteria for our journeys through space and on foreign worlds. With any hope, investments into STEM programs like the ERC will pay big dividends as engineers expand the realm of human experience to Mars and beyond.

To learn more about SOLIDWORKS education programs, follow this link. If you are a researcher looking for access to SOLIDWORKS, click here.

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