BLUEsat Off-World Robotics
BLUEsat UNSW’s Off-World Robotics team provides an opportunity for students to develop robotic systems with a focus on space exploration. The group aims to develop a versatile wirelessly-controlled Mars Rover. Our rover aims to be capable of performing a variety of tasks in an environment similar to what would be experienced on the Moon or Mars.
In 2020 BLUEsat’s Off World Robotics Team joined UNSW’s Vertically Integrated Project (VIP) program, a brand new initiative hosted by the university promised to bring new layers of support and opportunity for growth. With operations remaining in the control of students, team members are now required to enroll in a course to undertake the project. Consequently students’ will now be awarded grades for their contribution and experience a more cohesive team structure. For now the course is only open to second year or higher engineering students, with new member intake occurring at the end of each year.
BLUEsat’s Off-World Robotics is a multidisciplinary team, allowing UNSW students from a wide range of backgrounds 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.
The Software team designs and develops the code that controls the robot. 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 operator’s user interface. Additionally, the team is working on simultaneous localisation and mapping (SLAM) 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.
Finally 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 aims to personally design and manufacture as many of the rover’s components as possible, taking advantage of computer aided design software such as Autodesk Inventor and Fusion 360, and computer aided manufacturing such as CNC routers, 3D printers and laser cutters.
The group competes in international Mars 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. In 2018, after two years of work on a new rover, NUMBAT, BLUEsat competed at the ERC again, gaining 8th place! On all three occasions BLUEsat UNSW were the only Australian robotics team to compete.
Meet the BLUEsat Off-World Robotics Rovers
BLUEtongue (2014 – 2016)
BLUEsat Off-World Robotics’ BLUEtongue Mars Rover was designed as a prototype for the robots 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 represent BLUEsat UNSW in the same competition. This time achieving 9th place.
The BLUEtongue Rover is a battery powered, wireless platform. It is operated remotely over a 5.6GHz WiFi link 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 suspension system.
The rover also features a robotic arm and claw, allowing it to manipulate and lift objects up to 5kg. The claw can be fitted with interchangeable attachments for sample collection and large object manipulation. At the heart of BLUEtongue is a control and power PCB, designed and constructed in-house. It manages sensors and servos, communicates with the on-board computer and handles power distribution throughout the robot.
After a successful career of competitions, and on campus demonstrations at UNSW, BLUEtongue has been retired. As BLUEsat’s first fully fledged martian rover BLUEtounge remains an icon in the memories of fans and senior members. The lessons learned from its development continue to be passed down four years later.
NUMBAT (2017 – 2019)
The NUMBAT rover built upon what BLUEsat UNSW had learnt from almost four years of engineering Mars Rovers. The Off-World Robotics team utilised a modular design for this new robot, increasing its versatility and allowing for easy addition of features. This modular design incorporates a standardised equipment mounting system with a common bus that provides both power and communication. This allows for easy sub-system design and even hot-swappable components. The bus is based on the highly reliable CAN protocol which is used in cars.
Additionally, the mechanical structure of the rover was changed significantly, with a four wheel drive, all wheel steering approach that allows for maximum maneuverability and stability across a harsh Martian landscape. The use of new technologies such as optical flow and LIDAR allowed the rover to navigate the landscape seamlessly.
With NUMBAT the team competed in the 2018 and 2019 ERC placing 9th and 12th respectively. After a poorer performance and the realization of many redundant systems the team decided to retire NUMBAT coming into the new decade. With an even mix of new and old talent BLUEsat’s Off World Robotics Team aims to learn from their predecessors’ shortcomings and produce the best rover yet.
Bandicoot (2020 Onwards)
Under new student leadership and management structure BLUEsat’s Off World Robotics Team is now in the early phases of designing its third generation rover. The team plans to spend the next year prototyping several innovative designs and aspires to compete in both the European Rover Challenge and the University Rover Challenge in Utah, USA.
Keep an eye on this page, BLUEsat’s blog and social media to follow along with the team’s progress. If you are an engineering student at UNSW and are interested in joining the team, we would love to have you. New member applications will be going out near the end of 2020.