We’re hurtling through the NDSU campus parking lot when the driver, Chris, says, “This thing can handle a lot more, if you’re up for it!”
I’m a bit frightened, it being my first time riding on a student-made martian rover created with 3D-print molded wheels and metal rods welded together. We’re both facing away from each other with our feet in the air against the pedals that power the rover. The American Flag stuck in the side, a requirement for the competition, flaps wildly in the wind.
“Let’s do it,” I say, balancing my Nikon camera on top of my knees.
Chris begins to pedal once again and we gain speed. A student on his phone walks by and looks at us, bewildered. We head over the lawn and up a curb, which we barely feel under the massive wheels. ‘That wasn’t so bad,’ I think. Then Chris points to a much steeper fall, a curb jutting a good few feet from the ground.
“We’re taking it over that,” he says.
We swivel around and head off the ‘cliff’ as I squeeze the handles and shut my eyes — but then with a few bumps we fly off the curb and hit the ground, continuing our plow forward with tank-like resilience.
I tell Chris he should offer rides on the rover around downtown, especially around bar close. Because this thing is crazy fun.
The rover was created by Chris and a team of three other North Dakota State University mechanical engineering students for the University Division of NASA’s Human Exploration Rover Challenge. The school has participated for three years, and each year the teams can build off of the last one’s efforts. This year, they took third place out of 91 teams from around the world.
“We’ve built this on a lot of failures,” said teammate Rupert Cooper.
The team, made up of Cooper, Christopher Benson, Alexis Barton and Austin Karst, said over the course of the year they put at least a thousand hours into the project.
“It feels good to know that wasn’t all for nothing,” Cooper said.
The challenge requires students to design rovers that can maneuver through an obstacle course simulating the terrain potentially found on distant planets, asteroids or moons. The course was shaped to resemble craters, basins, boulders and other lunar- or Martian-themed obstacles. At the competition, held in Huntsville, Alabama, Benson and Barton had to pedal the rover over cliffs much steeper than the one on campus, over steep inclines and through sand — all off their own man/womanpower.
“It was rough,” they said. “It was real rough.”
The NDSU team finished the course in seven minutes. The first place team from Purdue University completed it in 6:07.
A big reason why they had an advantage was their unique wheel design, which they won them a Technology Challenge Award . This is due to the intense mountain-bike shocks they put on their rover, as well as a unique wheel design.
As part of the competition, the team had to design and fabricate their own wheels. Any component used to contact the course surface for traction and mobility had to be original. The team modeled their design after the Tweel, an airless tire concept that doesn’t flatten and can have tread specialized for a variety of surfaces.
The team created it using a 3D printed rim with material donated by Fargo 3D printing, to create a silicon mold. They then poured rubber into the molds to create the outer part of the wheel.
What made their design unique was it’s ability to squish and deform, “like a real tire,” Cooper said. Much of the design was inspired by he and another teammates passion for mountain biking.
“It involved a lot of materials research and design ideas,” Barton said. “We ran a lot of analysis. We didn’t go the simple route on the design.”
For their tire, the team also won the University Division’s Most Improved Award and the Technology Challenge Award for wheel design and fabrication.
The team took home $1,000 for their wheel design award and $250 for most improved, all of which went back to the NDSU mechanical engineering program.
Cooper said he hopes the money goes towards the team next year, as future students build off their ideas. They can build off the rover already created, or they can deconstruct it and create a new one. Either way, they only hope to see the team get better and better.
As for if we’d ever need such a rover on Mars … well, that might be sooner than we think.
Feature photo courtesy of NDSU.