Putting the Platypus rover to the challenge

Monash University’s Nova Rover team has touched down at the Mars Desert Research station in Utah, US.

The team will pitch its Platypus rover against the best robotics that students around the world can throw against it as part of the University Rover Challenge.

Last Sunday, the 25 students landed in Salt Lake City to participate in the challenge, which runs from June 1 to 4 and features a simulated Mars environment obstacle course. That means rocks, regolith and dust will need to be overcome as robotic ingenuity attempts to complete four graded tasks.

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Monash hasn’t participated in the annual event for the past two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it has returned this month with its budget-capped ($A26,800) innovation, aimed at paving the way towards lower-cost space exploration.

The two-year lockdown was not time wasted, with the Melbourne-based students using it to test, refine and redesign their six-wheeled machine.

A 360-degree camera contributes to the Nova Rover’s autonomous navigation capability. A 3m-tall retractable antenna adds to the range of radio communications beamed back to its remote operations team. And its new robotic arm can collect samples for various onboard tests intended to sense signs of life.

The Monash team has spent the past few days reassembling and trouble-shooting the Platypus rover after its flight from Australia.

“The tests include checking that all the wires are connected properly, the radios work, that all six motors and six motor control boards function and that all the individual joints of the arm rotate,” the team posted to social media.

Monash University is the only team from the southern hemisphere that has qualified for the competition since its first attempt in 2017. It’s up against 35 other teams from a total of 11 countries, competing for rover bragging rights.

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Monash University robotics tinker with their “Platypus” Mars rover concept robot in preparation for the Utah challenge. Credit: Monash University

“This remote team sits in a base station, far away from the rover competition field,” the team posted. “The base station is set up with two monitors, one with camera feeds and one with a graphical user interface (GUI). The GUI allows the remote team to navigate all the information sent to them from the rover.”

Everything about the rover – from wind and air pressure to orientation and chassis temperature – is relayed to the base station. Combined with GPS positioning and live video, the rover has all it needs to undertake its tasks.

A test run on Tuesday night, Australia time, gave the team a taste of things to come: “The team woke up to ice spikes on the fence, followed by a 30 degree heat, and then it snowed!”

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On the job … The Platypus robot rover is put through its paces in Utah this week. Credit: Monash University

The Platypus’ journey doesn’t end with the Utah competition. The Monash students will then take the test vehicle to another Mars simulation environment – NASA’s rover test facilities in Florida. There Platypus will team with Gilmour Space Technologies to further test its excavation capabilities.

“Australia’s space industry is undergoing rapid growth and investment,” says Dr Chao Chen, Monash Nova Rover’s academic supervisor. “We’re proud to educate and support our students to become the next generation of engineers, scientists and technologists driving innovation in this strategically important field, with international partnerships and connections already forged through competitions such as the University Rover Challenge.”

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