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.
Off-World Robotics, is a multidisciplinary team. 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.
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 also manufactures many of the rover’s components using equipment such as CNC routers and 3D printers.
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.
The Off-World Robotics team is currently working on improving the NUMBAT rover, which will be used for entry into future competitions and as a testing platform for new rover technologies.
Meet the BLUEsat Off-World Robotics Rovers
The BLUEtongue Rover (2014 – 2017)
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. The Mars rover now functions as a testbed for any new technologies BLUEsat UNSW wishes to develop for its other robots.
The NUMBAT Rover (2017 Onwards)
The NUMBAT rover builds upon what BLUEsat UNSW has 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 sensing will allow the rover to navigate the landscape seamlessly.
The team competed in the 2018 ERC with the NUMBAT rover and is currently working on modifying the suspension system, wheels and arm, while advancing the software, aiming to make autonomous navigation possible and improve their performance in tasks, particularly by having a drill module for extracting soil samples and improving the science module. The team plans and hopes to continue to use the NUMBAT rover for several years to come, and its modular design should allow for this to be possible.
The Drone Team
BLUEsat UNSW’s Drone Team was initially formed in August 2018, with a vision of creating a drone that could fly in the Martian atmosphere, map the local environment and interact with the rover built by the Off-World Robotics Team. The inspiration behind this concept came in no small part from NASA’s announcement of their development of a small unmanned helicopter that would explore Mars, alongside the agency’s 2020 rover mission.
Initially, the team decided to replicate those conditions by attempting to fly the drone as high as 100,000 feet above sea level, where the air density would be similar to the Martian atmosphere. For the initial prototype, an altitude target of 6,000 meters was decided on as it was more manageable. Unfortunately, the prototype design was found to be too costly and problematic. Moreover, the team recognised that a drone designed for operation in Mars would remain a proof of concept with few real-world applications and felt that a more localised and applicable solution would be both more engaging and technically-challenging for the team. Hence, the plans for a Mars drone were put on hold indefinitely, and instead the team decided to develop its drone making and operating skills by buying and assembling a drone kit with premade components.
When the team reconvenes in 2019, the team will decide on what particular project will be undertaken for the coming year. One of the ideas is to develop an autonomous system on a drone that can scan the underlying landscape, identify potential hazards and conduct a safe landing. Another suggestion is the development of a hydrogen fuel cell powered drone, which would be the first of its kind in the world.
Interested in Getting Involved?
If you are a UNSW Sydney student with an interest in space or robotics than we would love to have you in the society! We take students from all backgrounds, experience levels and disciplines. Check out our join page for details on how you can get involved, and don’t forget to have a look at the rest of the teams we have to offer!