Australian rover challenge helps local space engineers lead the world

The Australian Rover challenge starts with mechanical arms swaying, plastic wheels turning and students with stern faces staring at mobile phones.

The students are watching live telemetry reports on their robotic inventions performing on a simulated lunar surface. Sometimes with excitement. Sometimes with disappointment.

The Challenge involves university teams from across Australia – and one from Poland – unleashing their designs in front of a live audience.

Early favourites Monash University were the first to get their mechanical moon “tradie” onto the field for testing Wednesday.

It was a close-run thing.

Their Nova Rover has undergone a comprehensive redesign after placing second on the 35-strong US leaderboard last year. And the reworked componentry was still being brought together as the engineering students travelled to Adelaide. 

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The Monash University Nova Rover

“We were still coding at two this morning,” one of the pit crew quipped as their dazzle-painted contestant was carried out of its tent workshop.

“It’s hot pink because it makes people ask us why it’s hot pink,” added Jess Hepworth. The answer: “We want to highlight how many of us here are women and emphasise STEM for girls”.

The event, which is open to the public, is being held on a simulated moonscape on the University of Adelaide campus’ Math Lawns off Frome Road in the city.

This week’s event involves four days of competition (Thursday to Sunday).

Day one involves rolling off the lander and accessing nearby equipment.

Day two tests each rover’s ability to undertake lunar construction work.

Day three sends the rovers prospecting for resources buried among the lunar regolith (moon dust). 

Day four ups the ante by demanding rovers undertake a surface mapping mission using only their autonomous sensing and navigation skills.

Associate Professor John Culton says Australian teams have stolen something of a lead in the international rover stakes as they had not been affected by COVID pandemic lockdowns to the same extent as the United States.

That means more simulated moon dust has passed under Australian rover wheels.

And more hard lessons learnt.

Such as the decision to switch from a six-wheel drive system to a four-wheel pivoting design in Monash University’s Nova Rover.

Traction in the powdery moon dust was a problem for the original configuration. It tended to dig itself in. The four-wheel pivoting design is thought to be more flexible, manoeuvrable and efficient.

That’s what this week’s challenge is all about.

“Just wander around the workshops and ask the students about the evolution of their designs,” Culton says. “Just make sure you set aside at least four hours when you do so, as they’ll talk you through version one to version 600. They’ve very excited to share what problems they’ve encountered and how they’ve solved them.”

Australian Rover Challenge 2022: Monash University Nova Rover competes against the world’s best

There is no prize money for the winning team.

Just a trophy – made of scrap rover parts by the teams themselves.

Spraypainted gold.

That’s part of the collegial atmosphere the University of Adelaide wants to promote among contestants. 

But it’s also just the visible part of the competition.

Culton says the Andy Thomas Centre for Space Resources and other event organisers wanted to entrench a significant engineering component in the score count.

“We wanted student teams to have to submit preliminary design reviews and those kinds of engineering products to keep them on track and serve as a bit of professional education,” he says. “They’re being scored and reviewed by professionals in the industry.”

But mostly, the Australian Rover Challenge aims to get creative minds sparking.

“In other competitions, the teams never see each other. They don’t see each other’s rovers. And when the competition’s going on, everything’s completely blacked out – it’s all behind closed doors,” says Culton. “Here we have them working in a common garage area, encouraging them to help each other and share what they’re doing. We’re also making it a spectator sport”.

The event is open to the public between 10 am and 5 pm, Thursday to Sunday. A grandstand has been erected overlooking the lunar terrain with an MC and a big screen. And a live-streamed broadcast of the competition can be accessed via the University of Adelaide’s YouTube page.

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