Three weeks ago, close to midnight, a group of fifteen students huddled at base station on the Engineering Quad at Cornell University. The Cornell Mars Rover team had been at work for 12 hours — de-bugging, testing, and prepping their project for competition — in 15-degree weather.
Nearby, a bulky shimmering contraption drove in the outdoors for the first time, leaving tire tracks in the snow. Felt hand warmers, the kind you bury in your mittens, lay on top of the rover’s small microprocessor container.
“The computer doesn’t work when it’s below freezing,” Georgia Crowther, a senior mechanical engineering major, tells Business Insider. “Our computer literally freezes when it’s freezing out.”
Crowther is Team Leader of the Cornell Mars Rover club, an interdisciplinary team of 40 engineering, science, and business undergraduates that designs and builds a mock rover, much like NASA’s Spirit or Opportunity rovers that roam Mars. Recently named to BI’s list of most impressive students at Cornell, Crowther takes innovation to a new frontier.
Rather than focusing on its individual sub-systems, Crowther is responsible for conceptualizing the rover’s “big picture” design and investigating new methods of manufacturing, such as 3D printing. Last year, she co-founded the Rapid Prototyping Lab, Cornell’s first open space for 3D printing and laser-cutting, which proved to be invaluable in the research and testing phases of building the rover.
Crowther, a Stanton, N.J. native, knew she wanted to have a career in science since she a kid. Her mother used to do science demos for her at home, keeping Crowther mindful of the endless possibilities in the field. She chose to study mechanical engineering at Cornell because it “leaves most doors open.”
She had zero knowledge of rovers when she applied for a position on the Cornell Mars Rover project team, which consists of six sub-teams: drive systems, task systems, controls software, controls electrical, science, and business. “I honestly knew nothing when I first started,” Crowther says. “I was a sophomore, so I had barely taken any real engineering classes.”
Crowther says most students join the team blindly. They’re assigned older mentors for instruction, and do independent research to come up with build ideas and to troubleshoot. Students present their designs for individual components to the sub-team leaders, who evaluate and offer suggestions. Once the component has been computer-animated, tested in a digital space, and prototyped in the 3D printing lab Crowther launched, they start “machining,” or building the part in the lab.
The team relies on donations from alumni and corporate sponsors including Boeing, GoPro, and TE Connectivity.
Ares 2014 — the name of their rover — was assembled in full just last week. “And it’s working exactly the way we want it to work,” Crowther beams. She’s in charge of making sure the sub-systems come together in cohesion.
Fortunately, the Cornell Mars Rover team won’t have to put up with Ithaca’s Narnia-like conditions when it competes at the seventh annual University Rover Challenge(URC) next month.
Held in southern Utah, the competition challenges students from top schools around the world to build rovers that compete in field tasks that an actual Mars rover will face on future missions to the Red Planet. For example, this year, the rovers must traverse rough terrain with steep slopes and cliffs, collect and analyse field samples for signs of life, and perform maintenance on a series of pipes, hoses, and valves.
“The idea of the competition is that we’re simulating an environment where there are astronauts [living] on Mars,” Crowther says, “and there are rovers assisting those astronauts.”
Crowther and Cornell’s team will compete with over 31 student teams, who are all vying for the top prize: the chance to present their rover at the International Mars Society Convention and an undisclosed cash prize.
The URC is hosted by The Mars Society, a non-profit space advocacy group which aims to provide resources for a potential Mars colony. The students’ rover designs will influence their research.
After placing third in 2012 and falling off the podium last year, the Cornell Mars Rover team is looking to avoid past mistakes. Crowther says their downfall in 2013 was opting to disassemble the rover and ship sub-systems in separate crates to competition, forcing them to put it back together and test everything in a mad rush.
“What I’d like to do this year instead is put it in a big van and drive it down, so we don’t have to take anything apart,” Crowther says.
This option would save time, frustration, and costs — the lithium ion batteries that the rover uses can’t be mailed, so the team would have to make special shipping arrangements. Freeing up these funds allows the team to send more members to the competition.
So far, only Crowther is signed on to drive the 30 hours from Cornell to Utah. It is her baby, after all.
“I’m not sure if I’m looking forward to it yet,” she laughs. She’s scared of road bumps. “But it’s a little cozier [than shipping].”
The University Rover Challenge kicks off May 29.
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