Monash Uni team on a roving mission to Mars

A Monash University student team has made the finals of an international competition to design and build the next generation of Mars rover vehicles.

The Victorian Nova Rover team will compete in the University Rover Challenge 2018 in Utah in June, becoming the first Australian team ever and the only Southern Hemisphere team to qualify for the event.

The achievement has attracted support from Victoria’s Lead Scientist, Dr Amanda Caples, who said the challenging competition will allow the team to pit its engineering, science and technology skills against the best in world.

Nova Rover’s science team leader Daniel Ricardo said the team’s reaction to the news that they had left 95 hopeful teams in their red dust to make it to the final 36 was one of disbelief and excitement.

“It was a massive achievement because we never thought we’d make it in our first year,” Daniel said.

“We immediately agreed to double our efforts to prove that the judges made the right decision. So, we’ve been coming into the workshop and spending more hours than we should on this project and it’s become part of our lives.

“But we’re a highly dedicated team and we’ve worked on the rover since March 2017, mostly during holidays, weekends, early morning and late nights,” he said.

With the Mars rover past the preliminary stages, the team will now be assessed on its ability to develop a mobile robotic device that can successfully assist with field work in a hostile environment such as the planet Mars.

The rover has to have the capability to function as a field work assistant that can bring materials and information back to a base station,” team leader Ben Steer explained.

“It needs to navigate extreme terrain independently and conduct field work tasks, including collection and analysis of geological samples. We’ll be assessed on how well the rover can do this, as well as the science behind our methods,” he said.

That science is complex, requiring months of individual expertise and collaboration across disciplines including science, law, business, engineering and medicine.

According to Daniel, one of the biggest challenges is finding the right environment to properly assess the effectiveness of their rover, nicknamed Rovey.

“One of the major obstacles in designing a rover for the Utah desert is the fact we don’t have access to similar conditions nearby. To minimise the impact of this unknown, we took our rover out to north-east Victoria, but we won’t know for sure how well our rover will perform until we arrive,” he revealed.

The team’s enthusiasm is not only shared by Monash University, but also by Dr Caples, who together with the Victorian Government, has been a long-standing supporter of Monash Science and Engineering.

“The Victorian Government regularly works in partnership with Monash University to make our state a more competitive and vibrant place,” Dr Caples said.

“From major infrastructure projects like the Australian Synchrotron and the Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication through to collaborative projects such as the recent Johnson & Johnson Innovation Partnering Office, it’s all about helping emerging innovators get the training and contacts they need to turn their ideas into commercial successes,”

“Victoria produces some of the very best STEM graduates in the world and I wish the Nova Rover team the best of luck. I have no doubt they will make us proud,” Dr Caples said.