A taste of Mars on Earth: UAA Robotics club

The UAA Robotics club has been making steady progress on the construction of their latest machine, the Iceberg 2. They plan to take this rover, designed to explore the surface of another planet, to the annual University Rover Challenge, held by the Mars Society at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah.

Members of the UAA Robotics club gather in their workshop in the Engineering and Computation Building. The club is working to design a Mars rover for the University Rover Challenge in May. Photo credit: Joseph Diaz

The Robotics club meets every Friday at 4 p.m. in Room 201 of the Engineering Computation Building to discuss their agenda, and work towards completing the challenge, to “design and build the next generation of Mars rovers that will one day work alongside human explorers in the field,” according to the Mars Society website.

“After our meeting we will break into our subgroups, each working on something different,” Heather Lindsey, mathematics major, science testing lead and president of the Robotics club, said.

The work done by the club is allocated based on who is willing and able to complete it.

“I just do whatever they need me to do. Right now, I am working on integration of the science projects to the chassis,” Natalia Wanser, mechanical engineering major and club member, said.

A majority of the fall semester was spent on designing the Iceberg 2 and determining which materials they would need to develop the rover. The club decided to start the Iceberg 2’s design from scratch rather than reiterating the design of last years’ rover, the Iceberg 1.

Last years’s design, dubbed Iceberg 1, missed out on the University Rover Challenge by one point. Through a redesign, the Robotics club hopes to bring Iceberg 2 to the competition in 2018. Photo credit: Joseph Diaz

Designing the rover is done primarily through a software program called SolidWorks, used to create 3-D models. A lot of the clubs’ members draw out designs by hand before transferring those designs into a digital format.

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“Designing in SolidWorks first takes a level of experience and familiarity with the program,” Lindsey said. “We are trying to incorporate freshmen and sophomores into our team to help give them this chance to gain experience in the use of SolidWorks, since this is something engineering students don’t generally use until their second or third year into their degree.”

Groups that want to participate in the University Rover Challenge must make sure their rover meets requirements set out by the Mars Society. Last year, the Iceberg 1 missed getting into the competition by one point.

Hundreds of hours of work go into designing and construction of the rover to meet the requirements of the challenge, all for the hopes of a cash prize, a trip to present at the annual Mars Society Convention and bragging rights.

“There were certain parts on last years’ design that took over 200 hours of design time to get them finalized,” Lindsey said.

The Robotics club receives some funding from the university, but they cover the bulk of their costs through personal donors and sponsorships. The club also works within the community to make their name known.

“We do a lot of community outreach,” Lindsey said. “We volunteer at elementary schools and we are volunteering with [FIRST LEGO League] and [FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competitions] upcoming later this month for their state championships.”

Anyone can join the club, even if they are not majoring in engineering.

“Last semester we had a project management major that joined, which was really helpful,” Lindsey said. “We learned so much about how to actually plan things. We never really had much of a schedule before he joined.”

Grey Chalder, treasurer and chassis design lead of the robotics club, enjoys the application the club has to his mechanical engineering degree.

“This club is a way for people to get hands-on practice and to apply what they are learning in the classroom,” Chalder said. “It is a way for students to leave their legacy.”

The appeal of robotics to many members of the club is being able to create something with what they learn in their classes.

“It makes your education feel like it is worth something,” Wanser said.

The club plans on taking six people to the competition this year if their rover is approved by the Mars Society.

The University Rover challenge will be held May 31 – June 2 in Hanksville, Utah.