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UNL engineering team has its mind on Mars, and its eyes on the prize

UNL RASC-AL Robo-Ops team photo

The UNL RASC-AL Robo-Ops team of engineering students must build a rover and remotely navigate it through obstacles in a NASA-sponsored competition versus other selected university teams' rovers. The team includes (from left): Allison Miller, Alex Adams, Eric Markvicka, Mark Reichenbach, Joe Bartels, Effie Greene, Lukas Renker and Kearney Lackas. Not pictured: Tom Frederick and Walter Bircher,

UNL RASC-AL Robo-Ops device (model)

UNL's RASC-AL Robo-Ops Team has developed this rover design, which they are now building for competition this June at NASA's Johnson Space Center

If you think parallel parking a car is difficult, try navigating a robotic vehicle through an obstacle course when you’re 900 miles away from the scene. After conquering that, you might be ready for NASA work: helping a rover remotely conduct scientific research on another planet. That’s what Nebraska Engineering students are aiming for, with their participation in a prestigious competition, June 4-6.

The University of Nebraska-Lincoln was one of eight teams chosen to compete in the 2013 RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops Competition, an engineering challenge sponsored by NASA and organized by the National Institute of Aerospace.

For the Robo-Ops contest, selected teams of undergraduate and graduate students build planetary rover prototypes to perform a series of tasks in “the Rock Yard” at NASA’s Johnson Space Center this June.

At the event, UNL will compete with its “Rover of the Corn” against seven other RASC-AL Robo-Ops 2013 teams:

  • Arizona State University
  • Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and Florida State University
  • University of Maryland
  • University of Massachusetts, Lowell
  • University of Utah
  • Worcester Polytechnic Institute
  • West Virginia University and Bluefield State College

Each team receives a $10,000 award to aid their full participation in Robo-Ops, including expenses for rover development, materials, testing equipment, hardware and software. First prize in the competition is an additional $6,000, but bragging rights might be priceless for Joe Bartels, UNL team leader and a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical & Materials Engineering.

In Houston, the rovers will navigate a planetary simulation environment under the supervision of NASA judges. Bartels said, “Up to three members of the team plus our faculty adviser, MME Professor Shane Farritor, will travel to JSC for the on-site testing. The remaining team members will remain at UNL to conduct ‘mission control’ tasks.”

The prototype rovers will be tele-operated by the university teams and must negotiate a series of obstacles while accomplishing a variety of tasks, said Bartels. Sample tasks include handling specified upslopes and downslopes, crossing sand and gravel pits, picking up specific rock samples and carrying them the remainder of the course, and driving over rocks of specified diameter.

According to the RASC-AL Robo Ops website, each rover must be controlled from the home university campus via a commercial broadband wireless uplink. The only information available to the rover controller for performing the tasks will be transmitted through an on-board rover video camera(s) or other on-board sensors. Cameras will allow transmission of the competition back to UNL and to the general public.

The competing teams must also engage the public in their missions and research, with education and outreach for their rover to build excitement for future NASA missions. Bartels said, “We’d like to ‘bring the public along’ throughout the whole project and competition.”

Learn more about UNL’s Rover of the Corn and its team at www.facebook.com/unlrover and unlrover.com.

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