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The Husky Robotics Mars rover competes in the University Rover Challenge in Utah. (Husky Robotics Photo)

A team from the University of Washington just returned from a competition on Mars. Or, Utah’s version of the Red Planet.

Husky Robotics, a student-led organization, competed in the University Rover Challenge (URC), an international event that accepted 36 teams with a goal of showcasing designs for the next generation of Mars rovers.

The UW club has been around for six years, and attracts mainly STEM-focused students with a passion for robotics, space and science who are interested in developing skills around a large, interdisciplinary engineering project.

Husky Robotics captain Nolan Donovan is a senior majoring in material science and engineering. Originally from Vancouver, Wash., Donovan joined the club as a freshman. He said membership peaks at about 120 students at the beginning of a school year, but thins to a steady 70 or 80 members as freshmen perhaps come to understand they’ve taken on too much.

“It’s a fairly diverse group from within the engineering community at UW,” Donovan said. “I think we have at least one person from every single major with the exception of industrial engineering. We have been making an effort in the past year to recruit some members from Foster [School of Business] with some success, for our business team, and then we have some people from chemistry. But other than that, it’s mostly engineering.”

Husky Robotics captain Nolan Donovan, front right, helps teammates carry the rover. (Husky Robotics Photo)

Members spend about 10-to-15 hours a week working on the rover, with that time allotment doubling as they near a project due date.

Participants are divided into groups which focus on specific subsystems for the rover — named Orpheus — including mechanical subsystems, which involves work on the chassis, arm and science station, and system subsystems, which are the electronics and software subsystems. A small group also handles the manufacturing subsystem, which entails actually building the rover, and a business subsystem that takes care of outreach and fundraising and general team logistics.

The URC competition took place over three days in Hanksville, Utah, and Husky Robotics finished 29th out of 36 teams. Donovan said there was a lot the team took away from the event, including the fact that its antennae system wasn’t robust enough to control the rover during its missions out of sight.

“We’ve talked extensively about improvement and we have a detailed plan of action to go forward,” Donovan said.

Here are the four main missions that the rover — with size and weight limitations and a budget cap of $17,500 — was specifically required to do during the competition:

  • Equipment servicing mission: Approach a fake Mars lander, flip switches in certain order, open and close doors, read a code and type it into a keyboard.
  • Autonomous traversal mission: Drive the rover autonomously to assorted GPS points.
  • Science mission: Collect soil and analyze it for signs of life and make presentation to panel of judges on why team thinks there is life based on data collected.
  • Extreme retrieval and delivery mission: Under the premise that the rover is assisting an injured astronaut. Rover travels over heavier terrain and arm is used to perform simple tasks.

Donovan said the rover is a continuous process of development and refinement. The science station has evolved greatly and is much more complicated than a previous iteration when it was part of the machine’s arm. Now it’s its own dedicated module with a sensor suite, drill system, individual storage system and more.

The chassis has evolved, too, and over the summer and next year the team will be implementing a rocker-bogie design that is similar to what NASA uses with its Mars rover, Curiosity.

Husky Robotics attracts dozens of students interested in working on a dedicated engineering project. (Husky Robotics Photo)

When not designing, building and competing with the rover, Husky Robotics does outreach with younger kids who visit and with organizations that take part in FIRST Robotics.

“It’s very promising,” Donovan said of kid robotics. “It’s always fun to see what they’ve been working on.”

Donovan and many in the club are definitely interested in the aerospace industry after UW. He said the club provides members with a basis for developing skill sets that go beyond the theory and equations discussed in the classroom.

“It’s pretty rare to have a class where you get to spend an entire year just designing something, then physically building it yourself and testing it and then competing with it,” Donovan said. “And I think that’s the main advantage. You can go to an employer and be like, ‘OK, I have this experience with taking this idea, designing it, testing it, refining it, and just doing the entire engineering process in a microscopic, more controlled environment.”

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