For the third consecutive year, the team from West Virginia University (WVU) found itself on the podium at the NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkages or Robo-Ops Competition, held May 24-26, at the Rock Yard at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The Mountaineers finished second behind University of Oklahoma, with University of Utah finishing third.
According to faculty advisor Powsiri Klinkhachorn, professor of computer science and electrical engineering, WVU is the only team that has stayed at or near the top each year, having finished first in 2014 and second in 2015 and 2016, respectively.
“Last year’s first and third place teams didn’t even finish the competition this year,” Klinkhachorn said. “The fact that WVU has stayed at or near the top each year is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our students to this competition. I’m incredibly proud of their success, especially this year.”
This year proved especially difficult due to problems the Mountaineers have experienced before: cellular connectivity to the rover. Because the rover is tele-operated remotely by team members in Morgantown, a reliable connection is critical to success on the competition field.
To correct the problem, the team employed a modem capable of utilizing two SIM cards concurrently to establish a connection from the rover’s remote location to its home base in Morgantown for feedback and control. According to team lead Eric Loy, an electrical engineering graduate student from Keyser, the bandwidths from two cellular providers were bonded together to form a more robust network, which the team hoped would give them a huge advantage over previous years.
“Initial testing showed promise and improvement when compared to the previous year’s system, so the communication issues were somewhat unexpected,” Loy said. “On the test day, we were able to run the rover in a competition scenario with ease. We experienced latencies at or below approximately one second, so rover control was fairly responsive. Our operators were able to quickly search and acquire samples while swiftly navigating through obstacles in the rock yard. At first glance, our solution for the communications system looked as if it would solve our issues from prior years.”
On competition day, however, the connectivity was sporadic, causing communication between mission control in Morgantown and the rover in Texas to drop every 10-15 seconds.
“The software is written so it will automatically reconnect when the issue is resolved, so we were still able to operate, but at a much slower and imprecise level than we had hoped,” said electrical engineering graduate student Matt Grubb from Winchester, Virginia. “It makes the fine movements needed for sample collection very difficult.
“Given the circumstances, I am extremely impressed with the team’s ability to collect as many rock samples as they did in the hour,” Grubb continued. “They even attempted the contingency mission and were very close to completing it before running out of time and having to return to the start point.”
WVU swept the mini-competitions held in Texas, finishing first in best locally controlled manipulator dexterity, best locally controlled climbing agility and best locally controlled class slalom challenge.
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 was 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.