ISU engineers confident Mars rover is ready to compete

The Mars Analog Vehicle for Robotic Inspection and Construction, known as MAVRIC, is a Mars rover built by ISU students. The rover has the ability to climb over rocks, using wheels specially designed to give it the best traction possible. The rover will be competing in various events this June in Utah, varying from traversing rough terrain to taking soil samples. 

Felipe Cabrera

Interspace travel requires the right tools. A group of ISU engineers has been working on a special tool for a trip to Mars. 

For the past three years, a group of engineers has been working on the Mars Analog Vehicle for Robotic Inspection for the annual Mars Society University Rover Challenge, and it’s almost mission accomplished.

The Mars Society’s University Rover Challenge is an international three-day competition that tasks college students around the world with building a fully functional Mars rover. The objective is clear, but the task isn’t simple.

The rover must complete four challenges in the arid Utah desert — terrain traversal, astronaut assistance, sample return and construction/repair.

“We have to design a rover to take on those kind of challenges,” said Daniel Mallek, junior in electrical engineering and team leader for the MAVRIC project. “They tell us what the environment is going to be like and what kind of obstacles we need to design our rover to overcome.”

The rover has six wheels controlled by different motors, two antennas for video communications and sending and receiving commands as well as an arm for astronaut assistances and collecting soil samples. All of this will be controlled by software the team wrote itself.

“There’s a lot of different ways to make a rover for this competition,” Mallek said. “We need to find the way that works for us, for our budget and what we’re able to make.”

The team is small, with just five people coming from electrical, software, mechanical and aerospace engineering — each pooling their skills to make the best rover with a $15,000 budget.

“It’s a lot easier to get things done with a smaller team,” Mallek said.

As the team leader, Mallek assigns projects to his team members that cross over each other. The team consists of three sub teams: mechanical, software and electrical.

The arm the rover uses to assist astronauts in the field is comprised of different components that no single engineer can create. A mechanical engineer has to make sure the arm is designed to complete different tasks, while an electrical engineer is responsible for the electrical component that controls the arm.

Mallek said being on a small team gives people a greater sense of responsibility, which makes them feel dedicated, and inspires them to get more accomplished. But the MAVRIC project isn’t just about winning a competition.

“The primary purpose of [MAVRIC] is learning,” said Josh Delarm, teaching laboratory coordinator in mechanical engineering and former MAVRIC team leader.

Delarm said one of the biggest pit falls in studying engineering is that students don’t get enough hands-on course work in their curriculum. Working on club projects like MAVRIC gives students the opportunity to gain hands-on experience that is essential going into the professional world.

“I’ve had seniors come in from electrical engineering that have no idea how to build a circuit board,” Delarm said. “The curriculum is not structured that way … there’s a big difference between theoretical class stuff and applying it to an actual project.”

Delarm said working on projects like MAVRIC gives students the opportunity to try and fail and learn from those mistakes, adding that it’s also a good résumé booster. He said everyone has the same class experience, but having practical experience will set students apart.

Delarm said he feels confident the team can be competitive this year. He said he thinks Mallek is a strong leader and has a valuable background in electronics, which the project struggled with the most.

“I feel pretty confident we’ll be able to go to competition this year,” Mallek said. “I don’t see any reason we can’t accomplish our future goals.”

The MAVRIC team meets in Howe Hall 0620 (M21 lab) from 10 a.m. to 3 pm. Saturdays.