WSU Everett Mars rover | Photo by Cassandra Klos, The Mars Society

Washington State University’s globally recognized Mars Rover Team has earned a spot in the 2017 University Rover Challenge. This is the second year the team from WSU’s Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture at the campus in Everett has entered the competition, which had entries from 82 teams in 13 countries this year. Last year WSU Everett’s team earned second place and was the top-placing American team.

A project of The Mars Society, the University Rover Challenge is considered the world’s premier robotics competition for college students. Held in the southern Utah desert for the past 10 years, the competition challenges students to design and build the next generation of Mars rovers that are one-day expected to work alongside human explorers on the surface of the Red Planet.

“I am so excited! It is an incredible feeling to earn a spot in the competition two years in a row, especially with the field this year being so big,” said Mitch Elder, a senior mechanical engineering student and president of the WSU Everett Engineering Club.

“The experiential learning is just incredible for the students,” WSU Everett Chancellor Paul Pitre said. The challenge provides students with hands-on engineering experience while they learn to collaborate and lead teams on a large-scale project from concept to competition.”

“Hopefully we can go to Utah and bring home the big W,” Elder said.

The team will largely utilize the same rover they constructed for the competition last year, calling it simply Rover 2.1. However, they will face new challenges, which means making major upgrades.

 

A multidisciplinary approach to new challenges

“The greatest challenge this year is that the rover has to be autonomous in the terrain-traversal task, which means the rover has to drive itself,” Elder said. “We have a great team working on that, including electrical engineering students. Our team lead, Mark Walsh, is writing the code and leading the rewiring process. Then he is going to work on the automation. We have most of the hardware, so now it’s about getting everything coded.”

Mark Walsh with the new “brain” of Rover 2.1 that will allow automated driving

Walsh’s 12 years of service in the U.S. Air Force gives him a great background for projects like this competition. “This is the ARDU pilot. It allows you to use GPS and grid coordination to set waypoints and drive to waypoints automatically without any user interface. It will do all the remote driving,” Walsh said while pointing out new pieces of equipment that will be part of Rover 2.1. “Once I start putting wires into this thing it’ll look pretty ugly, but it acts like a nervous system for the rover.”

Last year teams were able to pilot rovers remotely though the terrain-traversal task. “The automatic driving is completely new to the competition. Last year I think our rover shook the world,” Walsh said. “They didn’t think the tasks could be accomplished with the level of simplicity we used, and there’s beauty in simplicity. This year our rover is going to have a lot more brain power.”

Brainpower is not the only upgrade for Rover 2.1.

“We’re also adding a new claw that we designed and built from scratch. Everything that we field this year is purpose-built, so we have a claw built for the astronaut-assistance task, which includes picking up tools with handles. This claw will act more like a human hand in a way,” Elder said. “We’ll retain last year’s claw for doing the precise movements in the equipment-servicing task, like turning valves and flipping switches, because it was very well suited to those tasks.”

 

Competition experience

This year the team goes to the Mars Desert Research Station with actual competition experience.

“Having been there last year is a game changer,” Elder said. “Everything we thought we could expect was in writing. We had a little online video and the written rules, and that was all we knew. When we got there, we realized we had misinterpreted rules and had to make last minute changes, which led to working into the early morning each day. That made it difficult.”

“We gained valuable experience from last year,” said Dr. Xiaopeng Bi, the faculty adviser for the WSU Everett Engineering Club. “The previous success set a high bar going into this year. Although motivating for the team, this also makes it much easier to get frustrated along the way, since everyone is likely expecting great success once again. I hope the students enjoy the flavor of innovation facing new challenges.”

Elder welcomed fellow students to join the team and be part of the experience. “If you’re in any way excited about what we’re doing and you’ve been on the fence about getting involved, get off the fence, get involved,” Elder said. “It’s such a fun experience to be a part of and it looks great on your resume. There’s plenty to do and we need people to do it!”

 

Industry support

In order to participate, the engineering club has relied on industry donations of materials and money.

“I love our sponsors – I can’t thank them enough. Blue Origin made a financial donation that helped us get going when we had critical early purchases. Electroimpact was huge for us last year with a financial contribution. We wouldn’t have been able to travel to Utah without them.” Other material donors include Metal Supermarkets, Boeing, Pacific Power Batteries and Janicki Industries.

“Our biggest thanks go to Everett Community College and their AMTEC facility,” Elder said. AMTEC has provided a space for the students to work and Elder was hired as a volunteer employee, which provides him with access to machining equipment and the ability to supervise students.

Follow this link to contribute to the WSU Everett Engineering Club through the WSU Foundation that will help the team get to Hanksville for the competition.