When it comes to robotic competitions, weight matters.

The team from West Virginia University learned that lesson the hard way, coming up just short at NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkages or Robo-Ops Competition, held June 2-4, at the Rock Yard at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The defending champion Mountaineers finished second behind University of Maryland, who bested WVU’s record-setting performance from 2014 by scoring 102 points.

According to team member John Lucas, overall weight of the rovers was a key factor in the competition.

“We expected to be lighter than average, but were surprised to see that the other teams had really focused on weight this year as well,” said Lucas, of New Market, Maryland. “Virginia Tech, for example, had a rover that looked to be one of the heaviest but proved to be the lightest of them all. If we had focused more on experimenting with weight instead of different drive types, such as wheels vs. tracks, I think our final design could have been improved.”

The team, according to faculty advisor Powsiri Klinkhachorn, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, used a split articulated front-back robot to minimize weight.

“For the past three years, we designed and built our rover using a rocker-bogie suspension system similar to those NASA sent to Mars,” Klinkhachorn said. “We perfected the rover last year. This year, however, we challenged our students to redesign and build an entirely new system.

“The new design cut the total weight down by more than four kilograms from last year,” he added. “The robot was very robust and functioned flawlessly. Unfortunately, we did not cut the weight down enough.”

Before the competition begins, the rovers are weighed, which determines teams’ starting times.

“Teams with lighter-weight rovers had the advantage of seeing where other teams were collecting samples and were able to get them in a shorter time, allowing more time for exploration,” Klinkhachorn said. “Our bullet-proof rover seems like overkill. Our goal for next year is to cut the weight down to below 30 kilograms.”

“Throughout the year we battled with balancing weight and strength of the entire rover,” Lucas said. “Having planned more for expansion would have allowed for easier addition of batteries and other components, which would have benefited us.”

This is the fourth straight year WVU has competed in the event, which challenges teams to build a planetary rover prototype and demonstrate its capabilities to perform a series of competitive tasks. The rovers compete on a planetary analog environment under the supervision of NASA judges. Up to three members of the team (plus the faculty advisor) travel to JSC for the on-site testing with the remaining team members staying behind at the local university to conduct mission control-type tasks.

The Mountaineers made the most of their run, scoring 81 points. They even managed to take a page from the WVU football team’s playbook, with the rover cuing John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads” as it finished its run.

“We used a Microsoft Surface 2 tablet at the main computer to operate the rover,” Lucas said. “Since it has built-in speakers, we realized during testing that we had the ability to play the song.”

The teams each receive a $10,000 stipend from NASA/NIA to partially offset the cost of rover hardware and transportation costs to attend the event. Additional support for WVU’s team was provided by the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium, the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering.



CONTACT: Mary C. Dillon, Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4086, Mary.Dillon@mail.wvu.edu

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