Mission to Mars: How 46 CSUF students ended up roving in the Utah desert

by in News

  • Luis Toledo, left, Daniel Lee and Armon Rahimi in Primm, Nevada, on the way to the competition. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • Competitors in the Univerity Rover Challenge stay in tents during the competition in Hanksville, Utah. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • Sound
    The gallery will resume inseconds
  • The Mars Society sponsors the University Rover Challenge in Hanksville, Utah, challenging college teams to design and build the next generation of Mars rovers that will one day work alongside human explorers in the field.. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • The CSUF electrical team, from left: Leandro Hernandez, Laura Cruz, Luis Toledo, Luis Landy (electrical team lead), Oscar Sanchez, Daniel Lua, Daniel Lee and Ricardo Perez. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • The Titan Rover team waits for the rover to perform the first event, equipment servicing. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • Justin McGregor (project lead), Frank Gutierrez (mechanical design lead), Todd Yeakley (robotics lead) and Juan Rocha make adjustments to the Titan Rover’s mechanics. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • One of the competing teams weighs in. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • Golda McWhorter, the drivetrain lead, parks right before the science task. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • The internal setup of another team’s rover. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • Byron Cragg, geologist and lab science lead, stands over the rover after collecting a soil sample. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • The Titan Rover science team, from left: Allison Serrano, Justin McGregor, Byron Cragg (geologist, lab science lead), Doug Danielsen, Arnold Rodriguez, Omar Ramirez, Joey Hernandez, Erick Guzman and Frank Gutierrez. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • Luis Landy watches over the rover during the equipment servicing task. His job was to make sure it didn’t go out of control and run away. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • Melanie Juarez with Armon Rahimi, Byron Cragg and William Vincent in the background. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • The rover returns from the science task. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • The CSUF team plays around with last year’s rover to see what it can do, taking it up slopes and off some jumps. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • The team from Independent University Bangladesh. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • One of the competing teams examines its rover. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • Some Titan Rover team members take a break. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • Mario Castillo takes a moment to rest during a meal. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)

  • Nguyen Nguyen enjoys the scenery after the last task. (Photo by Georden Grabuskie)



Editor’s note: While other Cal State Fullerton students were easing into their summer vacation, a large group of Titans was headed to Mars – or at least the closest one can come to Mars here on Earth. 

Titan Rover, a collaboration of students from many disciplines, traveled to the Utah desert to compete in the annual University Rover Challenge, sponsored by the Mars Society, on May 31-June 2. This was the third time Titans have qualified for the international challenge, in which 36 teams, narrowed from a field of 95, compete to build and test a Mars Exploration Rover.

Ryan Gauthier, a member of Titan Rover, describes the team’s exhausting but exhilarating trip. While the team didn’t finish as high as members hoped, it came in far ahead of the other California schools competing – UC San Diego, Stanford University and San Jose State.

Nina Robson, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, is the team’s faculty adviser. To learn more about Titan Rover, contact president@titanrover.com.

By Ryan Gauthier

Contributing columnist

This summer I had the pleasure of traveling to Hanksville, Utah, with about 46 of my teammates from Cal State Fullerton’s Titan Rover to pit the project we had worked on all year against similar ones from around the world.

Ryan Gauthier is a member of the Titan Rover team at Cal State Fullerton. (Photo courtesy of Ryan Gauthier)

The University Rover Challenge is a competition attempting to emulate the settings that would be experienced by the first colonists on Mars and calls for students to design robotic platforms that would be best fit to serve them.

At the event, a series of tests are conducted and run by all 36 teams present, ranging from having their rover travel autonomously to digging a hole and collecting a soil sample, with results rated by judges. All these constraints were known by us at the start of the fall 2017 semester, so we had about nine months to make a rover that could accomplish the challenges presented to us, as well as exhibit these capabilities in a video that would determine if we would actually attend the competition.

Titan Rover was a continuing program at CSUF, so we had last year’s rover, one that had been accepted into the 2017 competition, to use as a starting point for achieving the tasks laid before us. Throughout our fall and spring semesters, small redesigns and mechanisms were drafted up, fabricated and placed onto the rover platform between the hours and hours of design reviews, paperwork and other analyses necessary to get such a complex device functioning.

During this period, many other newcomers to the team and I had the absolutely wonderful experience of learning all the ins, outs and engineering needed to make a robust robotic platform. It was a difficult experience, but the knowledge and exposure to new technologies that came with it made it worth enduring all the pain.

The fruits of our efforts were just starting to be realized when it came time to leave for the event. We loaded into a rented U-Haul a robot that we fully believed would be able to exceed our placing last year, but it would take a little bit of on-site tinkering to finalize it.

At midnight on a Tuesday, we loaded up some rented vans and personal vehicles, formed a caravan and drove the 600-plus miles to Hanksville, a town with a population of about 200, to get to the Mars Desert Research Station, where much of the competition would be held.

Upon arrival, we pitched our personal tents and assembled what would look to an outsider like a professional workshop. Made from E-Z Ups, tarps and even the U-Haul, this space littered with tools and computers would serve as our highly active workstation.

I was really impressed by the setup we had alongside our tents, with the rover penned on three sides by the subteams within our organization, as it buzzed with drills and keyboard presses. Mechanical engineers, electrical engineers, computer scientists and lab-coat wearing natural scientists all had their work cut out for them; we had to make a rover go from barely assembled to fully functional.

Throughout the four days of competition, this area would continue to be utilized deep into the night, with people up and tinkering with the rover at pretty much all times it wasn’t being used in a task. These efforts were not fruitless, as every night netted new advancements in problems that had sprung up, and I went to sleep confident that the next day’s events would be well-endured.

On Wednesday night, there was a meet and greet, when I was exposed to the other teams. Sitting down to eat some barbecue with the Nova Rover Team, the only Australian team to be accepted to the competition this year, we talked about their experience flying out here and the differences in American and Australian daily living.

As I went to check out some rovers that had started to be assembled, I spoke to the other university students and started realizing how similar many of our designs, as well as our difficulties, had been. A team from Missouri talked about the stress in the final weeks of actually assembling the rover. Another about the difficulty in integrating all the systems, and another about the issues in manipulating the signals necessary to control the rovers. All teams there seemed to have shared the same experience when it came to this competition, and this was a very endearing realization, as my team and I were on equal footing.

The first day’s tasks, however, brought a sobering reality. After rolling out along a 3-mile dirt road to the Mars Desert Research Station, which I must say looks exactly as barren and rocky as the real thing, we were to complete the autonomous and equipment servicing tasks. One required the rover to drive on its own and locate tennis balls at provided GPS coordinates, and the other had the rover manipulating switches, knobs and buttons on a mock lunar lander.

We had designed mechanisms and software for accomplishing each, but after we had set up to run the event, problems started arising. Software glitches and mechanical failures plagued the whole event, and we walked away with only 4.5 points out of the 200 we could have gotten. When we got back to camp, spirits were low, but everyone remained determined. We set our sights forward to the next day’s task, science.

I had an intimate knowledge of this part of the rover, as it was the subteam I had joined. Again we stayed up late into the night finalizing the system that would attempt to pull soil out of tough Martian ground, as well as preparing the lab experiments that would be conducted on the retrieved soil.

Work on this system, however, wasn’t finished until we again approached the station. In the back of a pickup on a bumpy road, the rover’s final connections were soldered together and plugged in. When we put the rover out to task, it was able to roll around and look for a good digging site, but this time electrical failures prevented the science assembly from successfully extracting soil.

The competition allowed for us to physically dig up our own sample so as to guarantee at least the analysis points, and our team’s resident geologist selected a site that would net the most clean data. A few hours later, and after I had the pleasure of talking with our team’s resident biologist about the tests they’d run, a few other members and I went with the lab sciences team to see their experiments and findings as they presented in front of a panel of judges.

Our science team delivered. Successfully performing a DNA extraction on a part of the soil sample we had retrieved, they presented on Utah’s geological and biological intricacies, as well as the relevance of their findings in relation to Mars. We walked away from the task with a respectable 84 points out of 100, and spirits were again high.

That Saturday, we had the final task, extreme delivery, where the rover had to endure rough terrain to perform a variety of small tasks like picking up and delivering a toolbox and bringing water to a stranded astronaut.

To have a chance of placing well, we needed to get as many points as possible, and the second we had begun setting up for the event, problems that had lain dormant during all our tests started popping up. Two joints on the robotic arm failed to move, and the rover itself appeared to be unable to move its wheels. After about 10 minutes of onsite tinkering and adjusting, the rover was able to move itself, and the arm problems had been alleviated by sticking a tent stake onto the arm with tape.

This last-minute ingenuity allowed us to complete a good portion of the task, and even the judges talked about how our decision-making under pressure was better than some teams’ prepared process. We eked out only 30 points in the task, but I left the station that day proud of what my team had accomplished.

That night there was an awards ceremony with two teams from Poland and one from Missouri taking the top three places. We ended up retaining the same place we had last year at 21st.

Earlier when we had aided the team from Manipal University, India, in moving their rover to the ceremony, I had the pleasure of speaking with a student from there about what their experience with university was like at home, as well as what their impressions of America were, as we rode in the back of a pickup.

He deeply reminded me of myself in his replies, and we found common ground in our interest in American swear words. Later still, I again had the pleasure of speaking with my newfound Australian friends about daily living and politics. After a casual party that night, the event was officially over for me.

I learned a lot from my experience in Utah, but by far the most impactful lessons were how similar students from around the world really were, and how much crisis management and planning play a role in large engineering tasks.

Every student I spoke with had similar interests and technical knowledge, as well as a similar view of the world. Students from India were just as informed and polite as those from Poland or Canada, and I felt great pleasure in being made sure of the equality of all persons as human beings just trying their best.

The stress involved, in contrast, was immense and marked the event as probably the most stressful week of my life so far, but I learned much from it. After all that, I can rest assured that engineering is definitely the career I desire.

Titan Rover has allowed me to have such a huge, positive exposure to the engineering field that I will continue to contribute and look forward to next year, when we aim to place in the top three!

Ryan Gauthier is a junior majoring in mechanical engineering at Cal State Fullerton. From Anaheim, the youngest of six siblings, he’s been interested in designing robots his entire life.