Iowa State University's MAVRIC Mars Rover in Utah

Student Mars rover project wins industry competition

A team of students beat off industry competition to win the top prize in a recent international content held by Rohde & Schwarz.

A Mars rover project developed by a team from Iowa State University has been announced as the winner of the Rohde & Schwarz 2 minutes competition, which saw shortlisted applicants pitch their ideas in a two-minute video.

Launched last June, the competition offered a chance to win a newly developed Scope Rider: a handheld oscilloscope with all of the functionality of a lab unit. The competition was designed to uncover unique application ideas for the oscilloscope and was launched dramatically with a Scope Rider being sent into space, being exposed to heights of 32km and temperatures of -60°C.

“Since launching R&S Scope Rider customers have come to us with no end of really different ways in which they are using the instrument, so we decided to start a thorough search for the most unusual or innovative applications,” explains Steven Edwards, director sales operations and marketing at Rohde & Schwarz UK Ltd.

The initial round of the competition attracted 350 entries from 30 countries. Judges whittled these down to eight short-listed candidates, with each team awarded a GoPro Hero4 Silver. These finalists were then provided with a Scope Rider in order to make a short video demonstrating their idea.

The shortlist included diverse ideas from both academic and commercial entrants including oil and gas exploration systems, the development of a commercial space station and troubleshooting sailing and electrics.

“We make systems and equipment for use in offshore oil and gas exploration,” says Jody Feltham of UK-based company Seamap. “Our idea was to show how we could use the Scope Rider to fault find and install our equipment onboard a vessel while at sea.

“Unfortunately, the competition fell at a point when no engineers were at sea, meaning they weren’t able to showcase the use of the instrument in extreme conditions. However, office-based filming and some editing meant Seamap was still able to convey how useful the Scope Rider would be to its operations.”

In the USA, Astronautics Corp was interested in using the Scope Rider to assist them in diagnosing a wind speed and direction instrument – a tough challenge given the difficult placement of the wiring and the proximity to water.

“The challenge I had was finding time to get out on my friend's sailboat due to weather conditions,” notes Greg Hahn. “You don't want too much or too little wind. There were no schematics and the boat was wired up by my friend's father, an electrical engineer, who is now deceased. He didn't have any notes on the electronics upgrades that had been done over the years so of course the troubleshooting took much longer than expected, and the entire system still isn't working perfectly.”

But the projects weren’t just limited to being earthbound. Young Texan company Intuitive Machines is currently developing a commercial space station called Axiom.

“We are currently under contract to design a commercial space station to be launched early in the next decade,” says electrical design engineer Greg Hall. “This commercial space station will be manned and contain a science and engineering laboratory. It will be incumbent for the researchers on board to have instrumentation like the Scope Rider to properly monitor and manage experiments as well as troubleshooting on-board systems.”

A combination of the judges’ opinion and social media reaction to the project videos led to a team from the Make to Innovate (M:2:I) project at Iowa State University ultimately being declared the winner.

The M:2:I program, sponsored by Boeing, allows students to participate in aerospace design projects that address real-world problems.

Their winning project was MAVRIC – the Mars Analog Vehicle for Robotic Inspection and Construction. Founded in 2008, the student team competes annually in the annual University Rover Challenge. This contest, held at the Mars desert research station, attracts team from all over the world who are hoping to design and build the next generation of Mars rover.

The MAVRIC team is composed of students with several different backgrounds including aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, electrical engineering and computer engineering. Their goal for this year is to continue to test and refine their rover in preparation for the 2017 URC.

“The team saw an advertisement when browsing Electrical Engineering Stack Exchange online and thought ‘we could really use an instrument like the Scope Rider’,” explains MAVRIC project lead Danny Mallek. “We conducted a lot of testing out in the field, where normal bench-top equipment cannot go. The Scope Rider, being both portable and durable, is able to handle the fieldwork quite easily. The team can bring it anywhere and perform many different tests on the rover with it.”

With the Scope Rider able to provide troubleshooting onsite, the team anticipate these improved testing capabilities will allow them to speed up problem diagnosis and solving significantly.

The main problem that the team faces is that of manpower – particularly within the electrical team.

“The team currently has only a few experienced members and everyone else is learning. Due to some of the complexity in the rover’s electrical system, this created a challenge for the students working on the rover.  To help solve this problem, the team utilises a task management system that breaks large tasks into smaller ones, to help guide the way for those who are lost or stuck,” says Danny.

“The road to competition is going be long and paved with challenges, but I believe we can pull though. This year, our competition has an autonomous navigation task, where the rover must drive itself through a series of gates in the Utah desert,” Danny continues. “With our relatively young electrical team, it will be tough to meet this objective. The good news it that we have already started development of such a system, and the results are promising!” 

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