Caltech Rover Team Wins Second Place in Robo-Ops Competition

After designing and building a four-wheeled remotely controlled rover, a team of Caltech students came away with second place in the RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops Competition at NASA's Johnson Space Center earlier this month. Despite a weather delay and some wayward sand, the robot operated as designed and managed to traverse different slopes and types of terrain in Johnson’s Rock Yard, picking up four rock targets and an "alien" during the one-hour roving portion of the competition.

"All in all, the competition was a great success," says Justin Koch, the mobility system lead for the Caltech Rover Team and a mechanical engineering major who just completed his first year at Caltech. "Everyone on the team put in a lot of hours, and the quality of the rover demonstrated that it was time well spent." 

The Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Exploration Robo-Ops Competition challenges teams of university students with the engineering task of designing and building a planetary rover prototype. Sponsored by NASA and organized by the National Institute of Aerospace, the competition gives students the opportunity to apply what they have learned in the classroom to a real-world problem. 

Caltech and seven other teams were selected as finalists based on written proposals submitted in December. Each team received $10,000 to build a rover and to send three team members and an advisor—in Caltech's case, that was Joel Burdick, professor of mechanical engineering and bioengineering—to the competition forum in Houston, which took place May 30 through June 1. The remaining members of each team stayed at their home institution to remotely operate their rovers. Thanks to a live video feed and the 4G network, the majority of Caltech's team was able to watch and control the rover's every move from "mission control" in the basement of Spalding Laboratory. 

During the roving portion of the competition, which accounted for 60 percent of the final score, each team had free rein on the course for one hour. The Caltech Rover Team started its run on May 31. They managed to pick up two colored target rocks in the sand pit, but ran into some problems with grains of sand getting into the joints of the rover arm's gripper. They used the five-minute "mulligan" every team gets to repair the rover, but the run was later interrupted by an approaching thunderstorm. 

They resumed their run the following day, navigating from the sand pit to the "lunar craters," where they found and picked up an "alien" toy. Before their hour of roving was up, they collected two additional rocks on the hill. 

"The roving portion of the competition at Houston was exciting to say the least," says rising junior Daniel Lo, the leader and organizer of Caltech's team and a physics and planetary science double major. "We encountered difficulties, things we did not expect, but I am really proud that as a team we persisted."

Out of a possible 60 points, the Caltech team received 39 for the roving portion of the competition. The first-place winners, Worcester Polytechnic University, earned the full 60 points, while the third-place team, from the University of Maryland, picked up six points. Teams were also judged on a technical paper, an oral poster presentation, and an education and public-outreach component.

For their second-place performance, the Caltech Rover Team received $4,000, which they plan to use on future robotics competitions. They also received a good-sportsmanship award for loaning their tools and duct tape to the University of Pennsylvania team when its rover broke down. Koch says the experience he gained was worth the time and effort. "I picked up a lot of hands-on knowledge that will be useful for future projects," he says.