U of G robotics team ready to roll at Rover competition
They were underdogs the first time around and managed an impressive result.
The four-day event begins this Friday and will see more than 15 teams of robotics students from around the world compete in the badlands of Alberta.
Each rover will have to navigate a course through the land of Drumheller, Alberta, completing a set of tasks and challenges that mimic a simulated nuclear reactor disaster at a human colony on Mars. The rovers that complete the tasks with the most autonomy will get the highest score.
The last time the U of G team competed, in 2019, they placed sixth, beating top schools from Canada, the United States, Poland and more, while taking home the prize of the rookie team of the year.
“We learned so much from this first event,” said mechanical team leader Zion Maynard, a fifth-year biomedical engineering student. “This time, we have a more integrated and mechanically robust vehicle. We are really excited to compete.
Rover to navigate Drumheller Martian Terrain
The new U of G rover is equipped with four cameras: a main stereoscopic camera with two lenses that mimic what human eyes see, and three more to provide a 360-degree view around the rover.
“We want as good a view of the field as possible,” said team member Stephen Abraham, who completed his undergraduate engineering degree last semester and co-leads software for the team. “Cameras are important for mapping the environment and estimating distances from obstacles.”
These obstacles could include rocks, shrubs and hills – and maybe something unexpected.
“You can’t see the course until it’s your turn, so you have to make sure your rover is ready for off-roading,” said Spencer Ploeger, a sophomore in engineering masters who is one of the few members of the team who has already participated in the event.
To try and emulate the sandy terrain that makes up most of the course, the team tested their rover on campus beach volleyball courts near the South Residences. Members calibrate each of the rover’s components, such as the robotic arm, to work on their own and “talk to each other.”
An opportunity to apply learning to something fun
The 20+ team members have put in countless volunteer hours throughout the year to prepare for this unique event – which ends with no price beyond mere pride in victory.
According to Owen Douglas, co-leader of the electrical team and a fifth-year co-op student in systems engineering, every minute is worth it.
“I never even asked if there were prizes involved; I just wanted to do that,” he said.
“It’s just a great opportunity to continue your learning and apply it to something a little more fun. As someone hoping to work in the space industry for my career, this is great training.
While the team is mostly made up of engineering students, other students get involved, including those in science and even marketing. All it takes to enroll is an interest in learning new skills and a willingness to try new things.
“That’s one of the great things about being on the team: you can try anything,” Maynard said. “For my part, I joined my first semester because I didn’t have the opportunity to do robotics in high school and I wanted to learn mechanical and electrical engineering. It’s a great way to do it.
Beyond working on the rover itself, the team had to secure partnerships and sponsorships to help defray material costs, which they admit are high. But the team knows that money is not as important as expertise and teamwork.
“At the 2019 event, some of our competitors came in with big trucks and thousands of dollars worth of precision equipment,” Ploeger said. “During this time, we had to drive our rover across the country ourselves. And yet, we’ve made it work and we’ve proven ourselves.
This year, the team was able to pay to have their rover shipped across the country, although team members still have to pay much of their own travel costs.
“I think it shows our dedication,” Douglas said. “We may not be as well known as some of the other schools, but we are proud to participate and build the reputation of U of G engineering.”
U of G Robotics Team