Off-World Robotics

UNSW’s BLUEsat Off-World Robotics (OWR) team provides an opportunity for students to develop robotic systems with a focus on extra-terrestrial exploration. The group aims to develop a versatile wirelessly controlled mars rover. This rover will be capable of performing a variety of tasks in an environment similar to what would be experienced on the surface of the moon or Mars.

Off-World Robotics is multidisciplinary, allowing UNSW students from a wide range of degrees to work together. The project is split into smaller subsystem development teams, each tackling a specific area of rover design. These teams are roughly grouped into three categories: Software, Mechanical and Electrical. However, the rover’s development also sees many interdisciplinary teams being formed.

BLUEsat UNSW Off-World Robotics team members at the European Rover Challenge (ERC) withthe Bluetongue Mars Rover. Standing: Jim Gray, Timothy Chin, Denis Wang, Simon Ireland, Nuno Das Neves, Helena Kertesz. Kneeling: Harry J.E Day, Seb Holzapfel
Members of the Off-World Robotics Team at the European Rover Challenge 2016.

The Software team designs and develops the code that controls the rover. They use a variety of frameworks and systems including ROS (Robotics Operating System), Qt and eChronos. Their work involves programming embedded systems, getting the rover to navigate autonomously, distributed communication systems, and engineering the rover operators’s user interface. Additionally, the team is working on simultaneous localisation and mapping techniques utilising LIDAR and camera data.

The Electrical team designs power distribution and signal control within the rover. Their work involves design and construction of various custom PCBs, cable routing throughout the robot and integration of all rover components.

Whilst the Mechanical team handles the development of the rover’s physical systems such as the chassis, steering and suspension. The team works on finding solutions to every mechanical system, with a focus on developing lightweight and easy to assemble parts. The mechanical team also manufactures many of the rovers components using equipment such as CNC routers and 3D printers.

The group competes in international rover competitions, providing travel opportunities to society members. After a successful testing expedition to Arkaroola in July 2014, the team designed and built the BLUEtongue rover, which went on to compete in the Polish-based European Rover Challenge (ERC) in September 2015 where it achieved 15th out of the 40 teams there. Following this, the revised BLUEtongue Rover 2.0 competed at the ERC again during 2016, placing 9th. On both occasions BLUEsat UNSW were the only Australian team to compete.

The Off-World Robotics team is currently working on their next rover, NUMBAT, for entry into future competitions and as a testing platform for new rover technologies.

The team regularly posts updates about our robotics work on our technical blog where you can find a number of rover related articles.

Meet the BLUEsat OWR Rovers

The BLUEtongue Rover (2014 – 2017)

The upgraded BLUEtongue 2.0 Mars Rover representing BLUEsat UNSW at the 2016 European Rover Challenge.
The upgraded BLUEtongue 2.0 Mars Rover at the 2016 European Rover Challenge.

BLUEsat Off-World Robotics’ BLUEtongue rover was designed as a prototype for rovers that may one day accompany a manned mission to mars. The team began development on it in mid-2014, and the first iteration (BLUEtongue 1.0) was completed by September 2015. The team successfully entered it into the 2015 European Rover Challenge achieving 15th place out of the 40 competing teams. The following year, BLUEtongue underwent extensive revisions, and went on to achieved 9th place in the same competition.

BLUEtongue is a battery powered wireless platform, which is operated over WiFi using camera feeds and other on-board sensors. The rover originally used a rocker-bogie suspension system, similar to that of NASA’s Curiosity rover which is currently operating on Mars. However, due to issues with the design BLUEtongue 2.0 was upgraded to a 4-wheel drive system.  It features a robotic arm and claw, allowing it to manipulate and lift objects up to 5kg, with interchangeable attachments for sample collection and large object manipulation. At the heart of BLUEtongue is a control and power board, designed and constructed in-house. It controls incoming and outgoing signals, communicates with the on-board computer and  handles power distribution to the various motors and sensors.

After a successful career of competitions, and on campus demonstrations at UNSW, BLUEtongue has been retired. The rover now functions as a testbed for any new technologies BLUEsat UNSW wishes to develop for other rovers.


The NUMBAT Rover (2017 Onwards)

A CAD Rendering of BLUEsat Off-World Robotics's NUMBAT Rover, featuring its six-degrees of freedom arm.
A CAD rendering of the NUMBAT Rover

The NUMBAT rover builds upon what BLUEsat has learnt from almost four years of engineering mars rovers. The Off-World Robotics team plans to utilise a modular design for this new rover, increasing its versatility and allowing for easy addition of features. This modular design incorporates a standardised equipment mounting system with a common bus connection that provides both power and communication (using CAN), allowing for ease of design and hot-swappable components.

Additionally, the mechanical structure of the rover will be changing significantly, with a 4wd, all wheel steering approach that allows for maximum manoeuvrability and stability across a harsh Martian landscape. The use of new technologies such as optical flow and lidar sensing will allow the rover to navigate the landscape seamlessly. The rover will also house a new mechanical arm with 6 degree’s of freedom. This was chosen to allow for a flexible range of arm motions in addition to heightened range.

The team aims to have the NUMBAT rover ready for competition by mid 2018 and hopes to continue to use it for several years to come.