from West Virginia University will once again get to show off their robot-building skills when they make their fifth straight appearance at the Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkage Exploration Robo-Ops Challenge. The competition, sponsored by NASA and organized by the National Institute of Aerospace, will be held in June at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

The WVU team, led by advisor Powsiri Klinkhachorn, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, finished second in 2015 after winning the competition in 2014. Weight was a factor, since rovers are weighed prior to the competition, which determines teams’ starting times. Teams with lighter-weight rovers have the advantage of seeing where other teams are collecting samples and can get their more quickly.

“The weight of our rover hurt us this year,” said Klinkhachorn. “Our goal for this year will be to create a robot that is 8-10 kilos lighter than last year.”

The competition challenges teams to build a planetary rover prototype and demonstrate its capabilities to perform a series of competitive tasks. The rovers compete on a planetary analog environment under the supervision of NASA judges. Up to three members of the team (plus the faculty advisor) travel to JSC for the on-site testing with the remaining team members staying behind at the local university to conduct mission control-type tasks.

The rovers are tele-operated by the university team and must negotiate a series of obstacles while accomplishing a variety of tasks including negotiating specified upslopes and downslopes, traversing sand and gravel pits, picking up specific rock samples and placing them on the rover for the remainder of the course and driving over rocks of specified diameter.

Team members from WVU include electrical engineering graduate students Eric Loy (Keyser, team lead), John Lucas (New Market, Maryland), Maneesh Chandu Jasti (Telangana, India), Priyashraba Misra (Odisha, India) and Steven Hard (Point Marion, Pennsylvania). Undergraduate students involved in the project are computer engineering and computer science majors David-Michael Buckman (Inwood; WVU Honors College), Philip Fanelli (Ranson), Devyn Gentzyel (Enterprise, Alabama; WVU Honors College) and Curtis Landis (Kinsman, Ohio; WVU Honors College); computer engineering major Nicholas Mireles (Fredericksburg, Virginia); mechanical engineering major Nathan Owen (Fairfax, Virginia); and computer and electrical engineering majors Benjamin Upton (Charleston; WVU Honors College) and Bertrand Wieliczko (Holderness, New Hampshire).

Joining WVU in the competition will be teams from California State University at Long Beach, University of Buffalo, University of California at Berkeley, University of Maryland, University of Oklahoma, University of Utah and University of Wyoming. Maryland is the defending champion.

The teams each receive a $10,000 stipend from NASA/NIA to partially offset the cost of rover hardware and transportation costs to attend the event. Additional support for WVU’s team is provided by the NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium, the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources and the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering.