Saturday, March 30, 2013

UNL engineering students prepare for NASA rover competition

'The Rover of the Corn' engineering team. Credit: dailynebraskan.com

Eleven University of Nebraska-Lincoln College of Engineering students have spent six months and thousands of dollars preparing a planetary rover prototype — and they’re only halfway done. They’re calling it the “Rover of the Corn,” and some of the group members will travel with it to Houston in June to navigate the “Rock Yard” at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The others will stay behind to work the robot’s controls as it competes in the 2013 RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops Competition, an engineering challenge sponsored by NASA and organized by the National Institute of Aerospace.

UNL was one of eight institutions selected to compete for the $6,000 prize. Since September, the engineering group has been designing and building a prototype with a $10,000 budget.

Joe Bartels, UNL team leader and a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical & Materials Engineering, said the group members have dedicated more than 1,000 hours of work to this project. They meet every Monday afternoon for at least an hour and hold impromptu meetings throughout the week.

It was during one of these meetings that the group chose the name for its rover.

“We had a 10-minute brainstorming session,” Bartels said. “I said, ‘We’re not leaving until we pick a name.’”

Bartels said three team members and their faculty adviser, mechanical and materials engineering professor Shane Farritor, will travel to Houston. The remaining members of the team will be responsible for controlling the robot from the UNL campus.

“It kind of depends on who can drive the rover the best from UNL,” Bartels said. “Everybody wants to go down, but whoever gets the most practice at driving the rover gets to stay here. We haven’t quite come to that bridge yet.”

Bartels said the parts to the rover are currently out in the machine shops. The team will construct the rover in May.

Bartels said it felt great to qualify for the competition.

“When we just started it was just four of us — we worked for a long time,” Bartels said. “We saw NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace really liking our design. We got some great feedback. That felt really good to know that we were good enough for NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace.”

According to the RASC-AL Robo-Ops website, UNL will compete against seven other teams from across the country.

Team member Mark Reichenbach, a senior mechanical engineering major, said UNL’s selection for the competition is a reflection of the team.

“It’s exciting,” Reichenbach said. “Honestly, I haven’t been working in the lab that long. Everyone in there is really smart. So it doesn’t surprise me that the graduate students put something together that got chosen.”

Farritor said it’s been a pleasure to work with the students.

“These are obviously self-selected and very, very bright students,” Farritor said. “It’s a nice diverse group of undergraduates as well as graduate students who have more experience.”

Farritor said he has enjoyed seeing the students grow.

“They’re sort of organizing themselves as a coherent team,” Farritor said. “I think many of them have never had to work within budget constraints and things like that. It’s been really exciting to watch all of that develop. And watching all of these students — I think they’re really learning.”

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