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University of Central Missouri
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UCM Student Team Competes in NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge

Contact: Mike Greife
WARRENSBURG, MO (May 19, 2015) – Tackling the problem of creating human-powered transportation for use on Mars brought a group of students from the University of Central Missouri School of Technology together as a team to compete in the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center at Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., April 17-18.  

The UCM team competed against 95 student teams from high schools, colleges and universities across 18 states and Puerto Rico, as well as international teams from Germany, India, Mexico and Russia. Awards were presented to teams posting the fastest vehicle assembly and race times in their divisions with the fewest on-course time penalties.

NASA Mars Rover Challenge team
A team of team of UCM students competed in the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center at Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, Ala., with the human-powered rover they designed and built.

Students enrolled in Manufacturing Problem Solving, a course taught by Shelby Scott, instructor of innovative technologies and engineering technology, formed the team and took on the task beginning fall semester 2014. With the list of construction requirements in hand, they began applying their skills in problem solving and knowledge of varied areas of technology to come up with the initial design, followed by the actual construction of the rover.

The rules for construction and operation of the rover and participating in the competition required each team to design and build a vehicle that is human-powered and steerable. Wheels were to be large enough to navigate over obstacles such as large rocks and sandy terrain, but pneumatic tires were not allowed. Fenders were required to control dust, and the vehicle must fit into a 5x5x5-foot box when disassembled. In addition, the two drivers providing pedal power in the vehicle must be able to lift it, carry it a minimum of 20 feet and assemble it. Additional specifications addressed turning radius and safety equipment for passengers. Each vehicle was required to complete a designated, specially designed course of timed travel that included varying grades and obstacles.

Once the design was completed, team members began using problem-solving and engineering skills to take their concept and design to reality. Problems encountered along with way included availability and affordability of needed parts. A transmission had to be built, but suspension parts were salvage from high-end mountain bikes. As team members designed and built what they needed, the diversity of the skills and experience of the team members became evident

“A lot of the competition built their buggies based on the concept of bicycles,” said team member Daniel Atkinson. “Our approach was to build a vehicle based on an all-terrain vehicle with suspension similar to a dune buggy.” After the original buggy wheels were design and built, it was determined that they weren’t sturdy enough for the competition. The team went back to the drawing board and designed a wheel made of overlapping steels plates with strips of synthetic material for traction. While the result was effective, it also was noisy.

With construction complete, the team’s attention turned to the competition. Each vehicle was powered and driven by a team of two drivers, one male and one female, with two opportunities to complete the half-mile obstacle course.

“Our goal was to just finish the race,” said Haley Arnold, the female driver for both races. However, a drive chain broke in the first race and slipped off during the second, with the vehicle pushed to the finish in the final race. Despite the challenges they faces, the UCM team placed 15th out of 47 overall and 3rd  out of nine first-time competitors.

The team returned from Alabama with a commitment to improve their vehicle for next year’s competition by applying what they learned this year. After a short break, the team will regroup in June and begin developing their strategy.

“We had the loudest, heaviest and most industrially built vehicle in the competition,” said Joseph Paul, graduate assistant for the class. “But we know from experience where we need improve.” A new wheel design already has been completed, making the wheel wider to better handle terrain with a strip of serpentine belt attached to make it quieter. Team members indicated they plan to reduce the weight of the vehicle and redesign the frame to make it easier to assemble and disassemble, and all three of the drivers agreed that more intensive physical training will begin in the fall for those providing the “pedal power” for the vehicle.

In addition to design and construction, they will work to develop sponsorships to allow them to expand their budget, and they will begin recruiting additional team members with a variety of skills to replace those who have completed their degrees and graduated. Membership on the team is open to anyone with a genuine interest, in addition to the members of the course.

As they plan for next year’s competition, the team unanimously agrees that the true value of their experience what the name of the course set forth as a goal. Their overall goal is to finish at least 10th.

“We brought together all aspects of everything we already knew in terms of skills and experience, and we learned to work together as a team,” Arnold said. “Our goal was to finish the race without a mechanical failure, and we didn’t quite make that, but we learned so much more about how we can work together to accomplish next year’s goal.”