The crisp, sleek design of the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building (FRB) is a big contrast to the red, rocky playground in the front yard. Named the Mars Yard, it is just what you’d expect: a testing site for robots seeking a rocky, grainy, uneven surface, like that needed by the Michigan Mars Rover student team.
Recently completing their global competition submission video on the Mars Yard or in FRB, MRover has been thankful for the new spaces both in and out of the building to advance their technology and work together, both a challenge in this pandemic year.
One of the largest student teams, the Michigan Mars Rover Team (MRover) is a student-run organization whose mission is to design, build, and test a rover to assist astronauts in the exploration of Mars-like environments. The competition-oriented team’s goal is to win the University Rover Challenge that takes place every year in Utah. MRover provides a unique opportunity for U-M students to apply science and engineering concepts to the context of space exploration.
The team’s objective is to develop a rover that can maneuver through unpredictable, rocky terrain using only the cameras on the rover. The rover needs to be able to travel over rough terrain, manipulate equipment with a robotic arm, collect soil samples and test it, and navigate autonomously for one task.
The team’s interdisciplinary members represent all engineering fields, most science majors in LSA and business students from Ross. They feature four distinct branches, each with multiple sub teams sub teams that need to work seamlessly together: mechanical, electrical, software and science.
All four branches have significant components that the chief and systems engineers must integrate from the subsystems into one seamless, functioning rover. The mechanical team focuses on the robotic arm, chassis and mounts, mobility and sample acquisition while the software team covers teleoperation, perception, embedded software and autonomous factors like localization and navigation. The science team manages sample handling and instrumentation for signs of life in testing soil samples. The business team organizes sponsorships, website, outreach, recruitment and connecting the business operations of the other teams.
David Baek, Mars Rover President comments, “Even with decent code, we need good motors and mobility systems to let rovers drive over things. All of these tech branches need to be combined and provide industry-level performance.”
Students who participate in student teams through the Wilson Student Team Center are some of the most sought after by companies that work with U-M. The teams seek corporate sponsors who contribute funds, equipment, and mentorship and as a by-product have insight into groups of students who leave U-M industry-ready, in a large part thanks to their participation on the team.
Mars Rover is one of 22 teams that manage the concept, design, build, competition and business plan for a year-long project, as a side gig while they pursue their top rated U-M college degree. Baek is one of them and is still humbled: “We do this while completing our other campus activities and going to classes. It’s impressive; I’m constantly blown away by how much we can get done on a weekly basis.”
Ford is one of the team’s sponsors, among other companies and various units of the university. Having the Mars Yard outside the Ford Motor Company Robotics Building has immediately benefited MRover, and the applications for this space in this innovative partner space are just beginning.