OSU’s Robotics Team Takes First in National Competition.

OSU Quad Rover
OSU Quad Rover

The core members of the OSU student team that won the 2008 University Rover Challenge could have been characters in an action movie. There was Ben Goska, who’s been programming computers since the age of 10, and Jordan Levy, who’s been assembling gadgets for just as long. Ryan Albright knows mechanical design software and how to manufacture professional-grade parts. Matt Shuman organized the group and kept their goals in focus. All four are students in OSU’s College of Engineering and members of the OSU Robotics Club.

Their challenge was to brave the harsh, Mars-like terrain at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah.

They outstripped the competition when their “Parallax Quad-Rover” beat teams from the University of Nevada, Georgia Tech, Iowa State, Brigham Young University and others. “The rover competition promotes innovation within engineering, challenging engineers to find solutions that improve their engineering abilities,” says Shuman. The team adapted their rover to perform tasks such as construction, soil analysis and navigation in extreme conditions.

“It’s just dust and rocks,” says Shuman. “The entire valley is in a rain shadow and funnels light right into your eyes. It makes you realize you don’t need a rover that can get over plants and bushes.”

The event that helped the OSU team clinch victory was finding and delivering supplies to a “distressed astronaut” — in this case a real, but empty astronaut suit lying on the desert floor. The team’s Quad-Rover used a gasoline-powered hydraulic drive system, the first of its type ever used in this competition. It provided far more power than some of the other systems that were run on electrical batteries.

“We were able to go over and through rocks instead of weaving around them in places where many teams got stuck,” says Shuman.

The key, says Shuman, is teamwork. “It’s a challenge at first to communicate with three other people who are focusing on a small aspect of the project. We needed to communicate through documents, schematics and instructions. Documents allowed us to use each other’s strengths and understand what teammates had built.”

It still wasn’t an easy process. “We made a firm commitment to publicly showcase our rover a month before Utah,” says Shuman. “But the dress rehearsal failed horribly.” Once the team got the wheels of the rover moving and increased the throttle, the gasoline engine shook so much it disconnected a vital power cable. The pitfall motivated them to find and fix problems, which was crucial to their success.

Robotics TeamIt also made them realize that they needed to bring in more varied talents before the competition. “Anyone with enough motivation was welcome to help, says Shuman. Nearly a dozen did, supplying the team with t-shirts, maps of the Utah terrain and even expertise in constructing robotic arms. Most were engineering students also involved in OSU’s Robotics Club, and several accompanied the original team members on the 16-hour drive to Utah.

The team credits the Oregon NASA Space Grant Consortium, Parallax, Inc., a Sacramento, Calif., robotics firm and AJK Sheet Metal with providing sponsorship and valuable parts. Design instructor Donald Heer also helped the team stay on course.

As a result of winning the Rover Challenge, the team will receive support to attend the 11th annual Mars Society Convention to be held this summer in Boulder, Colo. They’re also looking forward to next year’s competition. “The whole team will be back next year,” says Shuman. “It’s amazing to compete and see how many ways there are to solve a problem.”

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