West Virginia University robotics team sweeps robotic competition
In late May, West Virginia University’s robotics team secured first-place honors in the mining and outreach categories in NASA’s 2014 Robotic Mining Competition at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center. The team then headed to the Rock Yard at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas to compete in NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkages or Robo-Ops Competition. While the surface, operations and robot were different, the results were the same: The Mountaineers emerged strong, scoring a record-high 99 points to win the competition. Second place went to MIT with 56 points, with Virginia Tech finishing third with three points. The competition challenges teams each year to build a planetary rover prototype and to demonstrate its capabilities to perform a series of competitive tasks. The rovers compete on a planetary analog environment under the supervision of NASA judges. Up to three members of the team (plus the faculty adviser) travel to JSC for the on-site testing with the remaining team members staying behind at the local university to conduct mission control-type tasks. The rovers are tele-operated by the university team and must negotiate a series of obstacles while accomplishing a variety of tasks including negotiating specified upslopes and downslopes, traversing sand and gravel pits, picking up specific rock samples and placing them on the rover for the remainder of the course and driving over rocks of specified diameter. What led to success was additive manufacturing or three-dimensional printing.
“The design of our robot this year was very unique,” said Powsiri Klinkhachorn, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, who serves as the team's faculty adviser. “Usually, we would use a printer like this to develop a quick prototype of what the robot could look like. Our idea was to use the printer to make the actual components needed to build the robot. Based on previous competitions, I knew we could build it strong enough to withstand the terrain of the competition. We could also build it faster and lighter in weight while giving it a sleek, professional look, unlike the boxy designs standard to these types of competitions.”
Stratasys provided in-kind support for the design, which provided the thermoplastic used in the design. Team members on site included team leader Tim Godisart, from Waynesburg, Pennsylvania; Mike Martin, from Clarksburg; and John Lucas from New Market, Maryland. Jason Battin, from Williamstown; Sam Castillo from Ridgeley; and Brandon Johnson, from Buckhannon, worked as part of the team remotely from campus.
“The most important aspects of the competition are data communication and visibility,” said Battin, a graduate student in electrical engineering. “The rover is traversed through the Johnson Space Center Rock Yard, which is 1,300 miles away from campus. This gap is set in place to simulate a mini-trip to Mars, the moon and asteroids. “It is very hard to plan for everything and every year our robot experiences problems,” Battin continued. “Last year, we experienced communication problems on the network level. This year we focused on strong communications and pan-tilt-zoom network cameras. We were able to connect directly to the camera, allowing the rover computer to focus on motor and arm commands independent of the vision software.”
Developing a plan of attack at the competition also proved useful, said Battin.
“Slight adjustments were made after scouting the robots before us,” he said. “The competition allots one hour for each team to search for samples. I set strict time points to remind us to move on to the next area regardless of what we were doing. I visited the course last year so I knew most of the major traps. I was sure to save them until last.”
The team developed a rhythm that allowed them to acquire samples in less than 30 seconds, while other teams spent five minutes or more attempting to do the same thing.
“We expected to have a great run and our operators provided one,” said Godisart. “As a result of the testing and planning meetings to determine our strategy, it was obvious that we were fully prepared this year. We really didn't expect our operators to drive into the Mars yard, an area with large boulders, as much as they did. It was the one location we really believed we could get stuck. "There were a few minor difficulties we faced, such as losing communications in the bottom of one of the moon craters and getting ourselves into some bad spots in the Mars boulder field. But none of these difficulties were enough to stop us from winning.”
This is the third straight year WVU has competed in the event and, according to Klinkhachorn, the lessons learned along the way enabled them to significantly improve the robot and mission planning.
“NASA is quite impressed with our progress and improvement and plan to use the WVU robot design in a showcase as an exemplary exercise in design and teamwork,” he said.
The team, which was sponsored the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resource, the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering and the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium, isn’t finished yet. Next, the NASA and Worcester Polytechnic Institute Sample Return Robot Challenge will be held in Worcester, Massachusetts, June 9-14.
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