Space rover readies for competition

Space rover readies for competition

Technology News |
By Nick Flaherty

A team of researchers and students at EPFL in Switzerland has developed a rover for space applications for a competition this weekend.

The Argo six wheel space rover is fitted with a robotic arm, a LIDAR sensor for scanning the terrain, and a rocker-bogie suspension system modeled after one developed by NASA.

Argo has been selected to take part in the European Rover Challenge this weekend in Kielce, Poland. Competing teams must show that their rovers can assess the terrain, perform certain tasks reliably, move about in an autonomous or semi-autonomous manner, and collect samples.

Jonathan Wei and Quentin Delfosse, the EPFL Xplore association’s president and vice-president, respectively, are first-year Master’s students in microengineering and robotics. They are former members of the EPFL Rocket Team .

The third student, system engineer Thomas Manteaux, provides technical coordination for the project. Now in the second year of his Master’s degree in microengineering, Manteaux understands the link between robotics and mechanics, and likes the project’s cross-disciplinary nature. 

Arion Zimmermann, the fourth Argonaut, is a first-year Master’s student in electrical engineering and working on the coding. “I really enjoy it, it’s a creative act. You can build an incredibly complex application from the ground up, limited only by your imagination,” he says.

After helping to develop an onboard computer for the EPFL Rocket Team, Zimmermann wanted to use his creativity on another project. Although he started out as a system engineer, he ended up “building those parts of the rover that we couldn’t find anyone else to take on.”

He developed the communication protocol between the space rover and the control station, as well as the 600 Wh battery, safety system, main power supply, and simulator for testing how the motors would behave.

EPFL Xplore currently brings together fifty students from different disciplines, overseen by an academic advisor, Alexandre Alahi, a tenure-track assistant professor who heads up EPFL’s Visual Intelligence for Transportation Laboratory (VITA), and David Rodriguez, an engineer at the EPFL Space Centre.

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“The team is made up of seven groups; each group is responsible for one of the rover’s sub-systems. Coordinating communication between the groups and planning out the project proved to be a challenge. We underestimated how much time it would take, and as a result we had to work extremely hard during the final phase to be able to test the robot prior to the competition,” said Delfosse.

Developing the algorithms that govern the autonomous navigation took much more time than expected. “Analyzing the rover’s surroundings and avoiding obstacles involves a great deal of overlapping data, and we needed algorithms that could run simultaneously,” said Delfosse. “We also needed to create an interface between the sub-systems that control the robot’s fourteen motors, because we had two communication protocols.”

The EPFL Xplore students have been testing the rover on campus on a special track they built called the “Mars Yard.”

“We were quite pleased with the results. We succeeded in creating a stable, high-performance rover – even though it could have been even lighter and more compact. Since the initial tests, we managed to lighten it a bit, but it still exceeds the 50 kg weight limit, and we weren’t able to replace certain steel parts with printable ones, since printed components don’t have the right mechanical properties. It’s a start and we still have room for improvement. The competition is one step in a process and regardless of the outcome, it will have been a rewarding experience,” say the four students who spearheaded the project.

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