Utah Students Take a Remote Drive on a “Mars” Rock Yard

Preparing for Extraterrestrial Missions of the Future

The RoboUtes are an interdisciplinary student organization at the University of Utah. For the past three years, they have participated in the RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops Competition. “Robo-Ops,” which is sponsored by NASA and organized by the National Institute of Aerospace, pits undergraduate and graduate students from eight select universities across the country as they compete to create the highest-performing planetary rover prototypes.

Once the teams have created the rovers, they ship them to the NASA Johnson Space Center’s Rock Yard in Houston, TX. Here, each rover is put through its paces in a variety of rugged terrains.

“The Rock yard has terrain that represents portions of the moon, that includes craters and loose surfaces,” says RoboUtes President Aaron Wernerehl. “There's also a sandy area and a Mars rock yard where they have some small boulder-sized rocks.

Craters

Testing the Reliability of Network Connections

As if the terrain weren’t challenging enough, each team must put their vehicle through its paces from a long way away and that’s where the Cradlepoint solution comes in. With the 2015 version of their rover equipped with a pair of Cradlepoint COR IBR650 routers, the RoboUtes must pilot their robot from 1,500 miles away in Salt Lake City.

“The first year,” said former RoboUtes member Nick Traeden, “we didn’t have access to routers like the Cradlepoints. We had very limited bandwidth to pilot the rover, which gave us a lot of problems with latency. During one competition I was driving the robot when I saw a cliff coming up. But since our latency was about 2 seconds, the rover had already gone over the edge by the time I could stop it.”

Rover

Rugged Enough for “Mars”

“You can see why the strength and reliability of the network connection is so important to us,” says Wernerehl. “But we also have to deal with the fact that the Rock Yard is a harsh environment. Houston in June is hot. It's humid. It's dusty. You're kicking up all this sand and loose material. Having a modem that meets military specifications in terms of ruggedness gives us a lot of confidence. We know that, despite the conditions at the Rock Yard, the Cradlepoints will give us constant, responsive control of our rover.”

Wernerehl says the team was concerned that the rover might lose signal when they navigated it to the lunar portion of the Rock Yard and drove it down inside the craters.

“We hooked up two different kinds of external antennas, but we never needed them. The stock antennas that came on the Cradlepoint routers were so good we never had any problems staying connected to the network.”

Rover 2

Great Connectivity Drives Invention

In the three years Cradlepoint has sponsored the RoboUtes, the team has evolved its technology to the point where, instead of having to navigate by means of images seen on monitors, the RoboUtes pilot have the taken advantage of their connectivity to move to the use of an Oculus Rift.

Now, as the pilot drives the RoboUtes rover, he or she wears the Oculus (a head-mounted display much like a pair of goggles) to get a much better feel for the terrain. When the pilot turns his or her head, the cameras on the rover turn. With this new technology, combined with low LTE-enabled latency, the pilot can move the rover through the mock-Martian terrain quickly and without mishap.

Wernerehl says that NASA tested the Robonut at the PATS and it is currently on the space station helping astronauts with tasks. Maybe one day a RoboUtes-designed vehicle will explore more distant planets for NASA thanks to Cradlepoint!