A Mars rover built by a team of student engineers from Washington State University North Puget Sound at Everett took second place in an international competition this past weekend.
Employing a specially molded tire tread, and making last-minute modifications with a soldering iron and knotted paracord, a team of engineering students from Washington State University’s Everett campus walked away with a second-place award last weekend in an international robotics challenge.
It was the first time the WSU North Puget Sound at Everett team had competed in the University Rover Challenge, where teams design and build rovers meant to explore Mars.
“It was an insane experience,” said Blaine Liukko, president of the WSU Everett Engineering Club, who estimates his own time on the project totaled about 1,000 hours. Liukko, 24, who graduated this spring, was one of several students who set aside job searches to participate in the June competition in southern Utah.
Sixty-three teams around the world competed in the first part of the contest this winter. A panel of judges selected the semifinalists by reviewing technical reports and video submissions, and chose teams from around the world — Bangladesh, Canada, Egypt, India, Poland and South Korea.
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The 30 semifinalists, including one from University of Washington’s Husky Robotics Team, then went to Utah for the final competition.
To win, the rovers were judged on their ability to traverse a complex obstacle course, manipulate objects with their robotic arms and perform a soil test.
Sponsored by The Mars Society, an international nonprofit that promotes the exploration and settlement of the Red Planet, the challenge is designed to generate interest in space exploration. It takes place on the society’s Mars Desert Research Station, in an area of southern Utah which is geographically similar to Mars.
The team of 20 from WSU’s Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture spent more than a year designing and building its rover. The biggest engineering challenge was coming up with a vehicle that could go over any kind of terrain, no matter how uneven or slick, Liukko said.
“There are big rocks, slippery slopes, obstacles you have to go around, under and over,” Liukko said. “We knew we needed big tires.” Indeed, the WSU Everett team’s rover had the largest tires of any of the vehicles in the competition, he said.
Once they arrived in Utah last week, Liukko said, the team realized they had misinterpreted some of the directions. For example, the rover needed to pick up and deliver four different tools at once, rather than picking up each tool separately. Using a soldering gun, Liukko was able to rebuild a compartment meant for soil-analysis equipment so it could carry more than one tool.
The rover also needed to be able to carry a gas can from one spot to the next. Team members Eric Kopicky and Austin Sundseth — both Boy Scouts — fashioned paracord into a net that could be used to hold the gas can in place.
This year’s winner, Rzeszow University of Technology in Poland, was a repeat winner from last year. Besides WSU Everett, just three other U.S. universities placed in the finals: Cornell University, eighth; Brigham Young University, 11th; and University of Michigan, 12th.
Liukko said the judge made a point of noting that it was highly unusual for a first-time team to do so well in the competition. And one WSU team member, Phil Engel, also won an individual science award, the only student in the competition to do so.
When WSU Everett was announced as the second-place winner, “We went wild,” Liukko said.