Caltech Rover ready for rock-yard competition in Houston

May 29, 2012 By Kimm Fesenmaier

(Phys.org) -- Later this week, a four-wheeled robot designed and built by Caltech undergraduate students will maneuver, apparently under its own guidance, through various challenges at the NASA Johnson Space Center Rock Yard in Houston. In actuality, the robot's every move will be under the control of a group of those students who will be located back on campus, in the basement of Spalding Laboratory.

The Caltech group, which is named simply the Caltech Rover Team, will be competing for glory and in a contest whose name is quite a mouthful: the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Exploration Robo-Ops Competition. Sponsored by and organized by the National Institute of Aerospace, the competition will take place during a three-day forum, beginning May 30. The challenge will test the ability of rovers from eight universities to navigate , climb out of mock , pick up rocks, and more—all while being tele-operated off-site.

"This has been an amazing experience," says sophomore Daniel Lo, a physics and planetary science double major and the leader and organizer of the Caltech team. "In the beginning, I couldn't have imagined that our rover would turn out this great."

Each of the eight university teams were chosen as finalists based on written proposals submitted in December, then given $10,000 to build their rover and to send three team members and an advisor to the competition in Houston. Joel Burdick, professor of mechanical engineering and bioengineering, and Issa Nesnas of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory are the Caltech team's advisors.

During a recent demonstration on campus attended by onlookers including Caltech president Jean-Lou Chameau, team member Harrison Miller stood at a picnic table and operated a sensored master arm made of acrylic; his movements were transmitted and copied by the rover's own robotic "slave" arm. "Oh, that's so buttery," Miller said, marveling at the master-slave arm-control system's latest improvements. He was able to lead the rover through a challenge known as the "Tower of Hanoi" problem, which requires picking up, moving, and setting down disks of various sizes and weights in a particular order.

In the actual competition, the rocks that the rover will have to pick up will be lighter and easier to grip than the disks used in the demonstration. "If we can do this, we'll be fine," said Russell Newman, the team's chief designer and a senior mechanical engineering major. In addition, the rover arm's six degrees of freedom should allow it to reach over and around obstacles to gain access to target rocks.

The Caltech robot uses a so-called rocker-bogie suspension system, in which the differential links, or "rockers," of the undercarriage keep the vehicle balanced. This type of system is used by NASA's Mars rovers to give them the ability to drive over relatively large rocks and varying terrain, without tilting drastically—and, possibly, toppling over. As it traverses the Yard in Houston, the rover's eight cameras will feed visual information via Verizon's 4G network to the operating team located in Caltech's Jim Hall Design and Prototyping Lab; the network will also deliver the team's commands to the rover.

Each team, in addition to being judged based on their rover's performance in the challenge, will be evaluated on a final written report and on education and outreach efforts. Caltech's team, for example, has a website and Facebook and Twitter accounts for its and has shared the project with several groups of local school children. 

The competition in Houston will be streamed live on May 31 and June 1.

Explore further: The source of the sky's X-ray glow

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Spirit Wiggles Into Position

Oct 17, 2005

NASA's Mars Exploration Rover Spirit completed a difficult, rocky ascent en route to reaching a captivating rock outcrop nicknamed "Hillary" at the summit of "Husband Hill."

Researchers Test Steep-Terrain Rover

Feb 05, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- Engineers from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and students at the California Institute of Technology have designed and tested a versatile, low-mass robot that can rappel off cliffs, travel ...

Three generations of rovers with crouching engineers

Jan 20, 2012

(PhysOrg.com) -- Two spacecraft engineers join a grouping of vehicles providing a comparison of three generations of Mars rovers developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif. The setting ...

Caltech: NASA Grant For New Work On Mars With Rovers

Oct 20, 2005

When it comes to longevity, the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars are giving some real competition to the pink bunny from those battery advertisements. The two rovers in a couple of months will celebrate their second ...

Next Mars rover stretches robotic arm

Sep 06, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Curiosity, the Mars Science Laboratory rover that will be on Mars two years from now, has been flexing the robotic arm that spacecraft workers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory attached ...

Recommended for you

The source of the sky's X-ray glow

18 hours ago

In findings that help astrophysicists understand our corner of the galaxy, an international research team has shown that the soft X-ray glow blanketing the sky comes from both inside and outside the solar system.

End dawns for Europe's space cargo delivery role

Jul 27, 2014

Europe will close an important chapter in its space flight history Tuesday, launching the fifth and final robot ship it had pledged for lifeline deliveries to the International Space Station.

Giant crater in Russia's far north sparks mystery

Jul 26, 2014

A vast crater discovered in a remote region of Siberia known to locals as "the end of the world" is causing a sensation in Russia, with a group of scientists being sent to investigate.

NASA Mars spacecraft prepare for close comet flyby

Jul 26, 2014

NASA is taking steps to protect its Mars orbiters, while preserving opportunities to gather valuable scientific data, as Comet C/2013 A1 Siding Spring heads toward a close flyby of Mars on Oct. 19.

Bacteria manipulate salt to build shelters to hibernate

Jul 25, 2014

For the first time, Spanish researchers have detected an unknown interaction between microorganisms and salt. When Escherichia coli cells are introduced into a droplet of salt water and is left to dry, b ...

How do we terraform Venus?

Jul 25, 2014

It might be possible to terraform Venus some day, when our technology gets good enough. The challenges for Venus are totally different than for Mars. How will we need to fix Venus?

User comments : 0