By Ben Cohen
Day and night you can find them down an easily overlooked staircase, through a crowd of lab coats and hardhats if you look hard enough, in a room in the basement of Kerr Hall North. Here, a team of programmers, engineers, designers, marketers and financiers amalgamate their passions to build something that can surpass the capabilities of NASA’s space technology.
The Ryerson Rams Robotic team (R3) is working to construct a rover which they say can detect signs of life on Mars.
“The competition isn’t about using a pre-existing plan to test our modeling skills, it’s about builing a rover that could be used on Mars right now. It’s a pretty serious project,” said Michel Kiflen, a fourth-year biomedical science student and R3’s science lead.
Kiflen was brought on the team for his background in soil analysis and he says the team is focusing on detecting biological life on Mars in a minimal amount of time.
The team has been working with different technologies to test soil samples for biological life.
“Not only can [the technology] detect life, it can do it in under 20 minutes. I don’t think there’s any- one else in the world that’s been able to do it as nicely as we have. Current protocols take hours or even days and we’ve shortened that into mere minutes,” said Kiflen.
R3 is taking a similar approach to NASA’s current projects by focusing the search for biological life on Mars. Last February, NASA launched its Atacama Rover Astrobiology Drilling Studies (ARADS) in the Atacama Desert in Chile, an area with soil and temperature conditions similar to Mars. The project was designed to test drilling conditions for life-detection on Mars.
Along with life-detection technology, the team will be redesigning the rover to improve its efficiency.
This year’s model will make use of a carbon fiber 3D printer to print some of its more complex parts and features a completely redesigned frame and arm to maximize cost and performance effectiveness. In addition, the Ryerson team will also be implementing a new wireless system and a revised control system.
Kiflen said that even with the new design and life-detecting technology, there could be some potential issues if the rover was sent to Mars.
“It’s just the difficulty of it. [Our life extraction method] isn’t fully automated, so it would be challenging to safely send the rover to Mars, but the controls and science teams are working hard to bridge that gap in our knowledge.”
Last year, Ryerson’s Scarab rover earned 21st place in the 2016 University Rover Challenge.
The unnamed 2017 successor to the Scarab rover will be able to drill into the ground, drive for kilometres, detect DNA present in soil and have the strength to carry at least one full-grown male. The new rover will also come with its own 50 kilogram shell which can travel across rocky Martian terrain, all either automatically or with remote assistance via Xbox controller.
The team is confident that they can earn first prize while also advancing spacefaring, rover autonomy and life detection.
“Now we know exactly what the judges are looking for, we know the site, we know what’s required of us. We definitely have a strong shot,” said Kiflen.
The R3 team will be flown to the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah in June to showcase the rover at the University Rover Challenge.
Rovers will have to withstand heat, dust and some light rain. The rovers cannot cost more than US $15,000 and will have to test soil samples as well as survive a meter high drop test and meet other size and strength requirements.
The team will compete against 86 other universities internationally.
If the team wins the University Rover Challenge this year, they can expect to be flown to California to tour NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and attend networking events with industry leaders.
The rover is expected to be tested publically in the Quad in a few weeks time.