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West Virginia University robotics team advances to final round in University Rover Challenge

WVU Mountaineer Robotics Rover

The WVU Mountaineer Robotics rover (Submitted photo).

After eight months of developing designs, building crucial components, and spending hundreds of hours testing their Mars rover, the West Virginia University Mountaineer Robotics team was selected to advance to the final round of the University Rover Challenge 2022 (URC).

Story by Adrianne Uphold, Multi-Media Specialist


Led by Faculty Adviser Yu Gu, the team comprises 40 undergraduate students and three graduate students from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering. URC tasks the students with designing and building the next generation of Mars rovers that will one day work alongside astronauts exploring the red planet.  

WVU is among 35 other teams from 10 different countries all over the globe that advanced to the final round. Mountaineer Robotics Team Lead Stephen Jacobs said the team submitted a five-minute video and a technical report demonstrating the team's readiness and the innovations in their design that will make their rover stand apart from the competition.  

"Throughout the fall, the team focused on designing the system and improving our system from the previous year," Jacobs said. "In the spring, our focus shifted to manufacturing, testing and iterating the design. Our team often utilizes all the capabilities of the Lane Innovation Hub for manufacturing components, and we also have been growing our capabilities to extend the knowledge base of our team." 

The team started on their current rover in the fall 2021 semester and went through an iterative design process that built components in computer-aided design software. Next, the students tested the rover by completing mock missions of what the rover could one day encounter on Mars – from picking up and moving irregularly shaped objects that weighed up to 5kg to testing the fine motor skills like plugging a USB in or turning a screw.  

Other tests included driving over rugged terrain, collecting and analyzing soil samples, autonomously navigating to GPS waypoints and locating Augmented Reality University of Cordoba markers. Students designed the drivetrain, two manipulator arms, science payloads, programming, communications system and electronics to compete for these tasks. 

"The robot uses tubular aluminum bogies and aluminum chassis which supports the payloads and main electronics box," Jacobs said. "The electronics system uses both custom and commercial off-the-shelf hardware to provide power to all the components, while the computer onboard the robot serves to interface with cameras placed around the rover and the other sensors such as our 3D LiDAR." 

Communication between the pilots at the base station and the robot is facilitated by a 2.4 GHz radio system that can stream multiple video feeds as well as telemetry information from the robot, which will be crucial element that will help future astronauts in space.  

Jacobs, a senior mechanical and aerospace engineering major who has been a member of the team since January 2020, said before the finals in June, the team will focus on improving the robustness of the rover's system and ensuring the robot can complete each task of the competition.  

"We will work on improving the designs of our physical and programmatic architectures as well as testing and creating checklists for every situation that we can think of," Jacobs said. "We want to have as much testing done before the competition, so the robot doesn't surprise us with anything once we are in Utah." 

The team will also be decreasing weight, increasing reliability and adding redundancies to mitigate some of the risks in the design while testing the rover several days a week until June, said Heather Marsico, project management lead and electrical engineering major.  

"The team is very excited about our hard work, dedication, and creativity–we are really proud of the project we have been able to create, and we are looking forward to seeing the other teams in Utah," Marsico said.  

The team will be heading to URC in Utah on June 1-4 at the Mars Desert Research Station and competing against other universities like the University of Alabama, Iowa State University, University of Michigan, University of Oklahoma and more. Teams have battled through a hiatus of two years because of COVID-19 impacts.  

"Advancing to the final round of URC and getting to compete in a Utah desert with the best teams from around the world is a welcomed change from the two-year aberration caused by COVID-19," said Gu, associate professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. "It's a continuation of a long and proud history of joining robotic competitions by WVU students. I am extremely proud of what the students have achieved so far this year." 



Contact: Paige Nesbit
Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources
304.293.4135, Paige Nesbit

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