RoboUtes take 2nd in NASA competition

June 14, 2011

The RoboUtes club took second place in the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Exploration Robo-Ops Competition late last month, winning $4000 with the rover they built to traverse rock fields, sand dunes, and lunar craters.

The competition, created by the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA), took place May 23-25, 2011. The U of U team was invited to compete with six other unversity teams at the Johnson Space Center’s Mars test field.

The RoboUtes club has been working on the project for the past year. The mission? To compete in a simulated extra-planetary rover mission where robots need to traverse varying difficult terrain while collecting and storing rock samples. The team would also need to be controlling their rover from the University of Utah campus, 1,200 miles away from the test field. The team brainstormed a plan, sent in a proposal, and received a $10,000 grant from NASA and NIA in February to build and ship the robot for the competition in May.

The RoboUtes custom built the mechanical and electrical systems. The rover also had three different cameras: One on a deployable boom for high resolution photos, one at the nose of the rover for tele-operated driving, and one on the robots hand so operators could collect rocks easier.

Tragically, a vital component of the robotic arm broke, making the rover unable to earn points from collecting rock samples. However, the rover was able to traverse the field and show off its terrain handling capabilities. Electrical lead Jon Davies, who accompanied the rover to NASA’s Johnson Space Center stated, “We were one of the fastest rovers on the field and…[because of the design] we were able to go into areas that none of the other teams could go.”

The RoboUtes were able to make up lost ground with the education and public outreach areas of the competition where they scored big points with their dynamic online experience utilizing social media and a live video stream from the rover. The team also volunteered at numerous science and technology oriented events, including the Utah FIRST Lego League Championship, Utah FIRST Robotics Competition Regional, and the Department of Mechanical Engineering’s Design Day.

“As a team we really learned a lot and had a lot of fun,” remarked RoboUtes President Eric Keeney.  When asked what the team will be doing with the $4000, Keeney said, “We are going to put all of the bells and whistles onto our rover that we didn’t have time for. We are going to do more public outreach. We will also use some of the money as starting capital for future competitions.” More information about the competition and the RoboUtes, along with pictures and video of the rover in action, can be found at roboutes.utah.edu.