CSULB Sends First Team to Rover Competition at NASA Johnson Space Center

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Photos by Asia Morris.

A team of students from California State University, Long Beach's (CSULB) Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) attempted to demonstrate the abilities of one of its two planetary rovers on Wednesday, when one of the 80 connections needed to make Gemini Alpha respond to control went awry.

The team has to ship Gemini Alpha by Thursday at 7:00PM so that it arrives in Houston, TX at the NASA Johnson Space Center in time for the 5th annual RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops Competition, sponsored by NASA and organized by the National Institute of Aerospace, which starts on June 2. And in order to figure out the botched signal, they must take everything apart.

As several engineering students bend over the rover, fiddling with screws and electrical circuits, communicating tensely with each other about what could be the problem, Praveen Shankar, Assistant Professor in Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, supervises the situation calmly.

"These are just growing pains," he told the Post. "Engineering is not simple."

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This will be the first time a CSULB team has participated in the Robo-Ops Challenge. According to Inside CSULB, the group made up of both graduate and undergraduate engineering students was one of only eight teams selected from across the country and only one of two new teams to enter this year. According to the Robo-Ops Challenge website, each team received a stipend of $10,000 to ensure their full participating in the competition.

CSULB will be going head-to-head with seven other teams from institutions including Virginia Tech, University of Maryland and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The winning team will take home a cash prize of $6,000, while second place will take home $4,000 and third place $2,000.

Leading the team is electrical engineering's Ganesh Kudlepannavar and mechanical engineering's Jorge Vega. Vega explained that during the competition, the rover must locate different colored rocks and place them in a container. The more rocks one picks up, the better, he said. Some rocks are harder to reach for the rover and some are more difficult to pick up than others. Bonus points are awarded if the rover manages to pick up an "alien life form" placed in the space center's Rock Yard.

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During the competition, Gemini Alpha's rover system will be controlled remotely from Long Beach by Kudlepannavar using on-board camera transmissions, while three students and a faculty member will be physically present if anything goes wrong. Vega said that if something needs to be fixed, the team in Houston will only have 10 minutes to correct the malfunction.

Student Andrew Blackney, who is one of the team's leaders, acquired his Bachelor of Science in Aerospace from CSULB in 2014 and is enduring his first year of the aerospace master's program. He is especially nervous because he is in charge of the electrical design, which isn't exactly his forte.

"I'm not an electrical engineer, so that's one of the biggest things that I'm nervous about is there's going to be something that they did, that I may not 100 percent understand," he said. "And it'll be that one thing that goes wrong on there."

Blackney, who said he “hasn’t slept in a couple days,” said he still finds humor in the complicated life of an engineer.

“One day something will work and we'll be like, 'Alright that works,' let's make another one of it, but better, and then, 'Alright, why doesn't this work?'" he said. "There's a famous meme for computer engineers that states, 'My code doesn't work and I don't know why,' and then the [text] under that will say, 'My code works and I don't know why.'"

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Despite the understandable nerves, Blackney told CSULB Insider that having the opportunity to participate in a competition of this caliber proudly showcases CSULB’s College of Engineering as a collective of “smart, motivated students who prefer the hands-on approach.”

As far as Wednesday's complications are concerned, Shankar expressed the profound amount of communication and coordination from the team that is needed to make the rover a successful instrument of exploration.

We have three separate teams," said Shankar. "One is working on the electrical portion of it, one is working on the computer portion of it, one is working on the mechanical portion of it, but they need to work together because somebody builds the mechanical portion of it, but somebody has to power it, and somebody has to control it."

"So for them to work together... these are students, so they're learning how to do system integration," he continued. "So that's where the challenge is. So what you see now is basically that. They're trying to integrate a system. And now the three students that are working [on the rover now] are working from different teams to fix it. So those are the biggest challenges for us."

Shankar iterated that he is incredibly proud of the CSULB Robo-Ops team, whose students’ he has been supervising for almost a year now.

“I can’t wait to get to Houston to see them compete,” he said.

During the competition from June 2 to June 4, you can follow the team live here. Click here for the Robo-Ops competition schedule. For more information about the team, click here.

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