On-the-spot engineering

Eight UNSW students set off to Poland to enjoy the terrifying, exhilarating and nail-biting drama of a robotics adventure on Mars

Eight UNSW students set off to Poland to participate in the Mars Society's Rover Challenge.

“Carrying soldering irons, a computer in a briefcase and other highly suspicious electrical items on a series of international flights is always interesting; but three flights and 35 hours later we arrived in Poland ready for the three-day European Rover Challenge (ERC),” says Harry J.E. Day, a third year UNSW Computer Science and Engineering student.

With a few days before the competition to build and test their Mars Rover, the team rolled up their sleeves and got to work.

Day was one of eight UNSW Engineering students who travelled to Europe in September 2016 to take part in the third edition of the ERC. As part of the prestigious Mars Society’s Rover Challenge, the 2016 ERC attracted 400 competitors in over 60 teams from countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Turkey, Canada, India and Nepal. All teams came ready to put their hand-built Rovers through their paces in a series of missions in the purpose-built ‘Martian’ terrain in the Podkarpackie Dome in Rzeszow, Poland.

As Australia’s only representative, UNSW’s Off-World Robotics team – part of the long-running BLUEsat student-led project – performed very well; although not without what Day refers to as “their fair share of drama and on-the-spot engineering!”

Just two days before the start of the competition, disaster struck. “It started as a routine problem,” explains Day. “The wheel was de-calibrated, but the situation quickly deteriorated and in the space of five minutes the amount of red on the debugging terminal doubled – none of the ports were working!”

Everyone had things that broke, everyone had things that went wrong, so there were always people rushing around, saying things like, 'Do you have Allen keys? Do you have a charger? Our battery has exploded!'"

Helena Kertesz, second year student, Mechatronic Engineering and Computer Science

It took all their ingenuity (and some scouring of the Polish countryside looking for spare parts) to get the Rover up and running again, which they achieved just hours before the first of their four challenges.

UNSW's rover in action.

“Our first task was a science mission. We had to drive the Rover to collect some soil and rock samples and dig a trench,” explains Helena Kertesz, second year Mechatronic Engineering and Computer Science student and the team’s Chief Technology Officer. “There were bonus marks for doing any scientific sampling on board, like weighing or measuring the rocks.”

They started off well, by successfully collecting and measuring the two requisite rocks, but then things started to go wrong. “Our Rover needed to climb a steep incline to reach the digging area and we could only watch in horror as it tumbled backwards off the edge of the hill,” says Day.

Luckily, the Rover hadn’t suffered too much damage from its fall and was soon ready for the next task. For this navigation challenge, the team were forbidden from using cameras. Instead, they had to rely on 2D software maps or, preferably, autonomous navigation. Cheers from the Control Room concluded this mission as Kertesz managed to place the Rover just 10cm from the final navigation marker. This was a feat no other team had achieved to that point.

The third task involved retrieving a tool from a location protected by a steep hill, reversing out of the tight gap and placing it on a platform. Day says that despite accidently digging out half the dirt around the platform, the team managed to place the tool correctly, but only moments before the claw spun too far and they lost all gripper control.

For the final task, the Rover was required to manipulate a control panel full of switches and dials, and insert a plug into a socket to read its voltage. With time rapidly running out, two team members took simultaneous control of different Rover systems to complete the task. “The final dial proved too much with a decalibrated claw, but thanks to some fancy manoeuvring we got all the switches,” explains Day.

Overall, the team came a creditable ninth, which was a solid improvement over last year’s 15th place. According to Kertesz, who attended the event the previous year, the sense of camaraderie among participants was much more prevalent than any sense of competition.  

“It was a lot of fun,” she says. “We were just a bunch of uni students getting together, admiring each other’s Rovers and enjoying engineering. Everyone had things that broke, everyone had things that went wrong, so there were always people rushing around, saying things like, “Do you have Allen keys? Do you have a charger? Our battery has exploded!’ Taking part was an incredibly satisfying experience.”

BLUEsat would like to thank its sponsors, especially UNSW and the NSW Government, for making participation in the competition possible.

Meet the team

Meet the team:

  • Helena Kertesz - 2nd year Mechatronics and Computer Science Engineering
  • Denis Wang - 3rd year Actuarial and Commerce
  • Harry J.E. Day - 3rd year Computer Science Engineering
  • Jim Gray - 4th year Electrical Engineering and Physical Science
  • Nuno Das Neves - 1st year Computer Science Engineering
  • Timothy Chin - 3rd year Mechatronics Engineering
  • Simon Ireland – 4th year Computer Science Engineering and Commerce
  • Sebastian Holzapfel - 2nd year Electrical Engineering
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