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WVU robotics team wins international Mars rover challenge

The winners of the University Rover Challenge line up to celebrate in the desert of Utah. More than ten members are pictured.

Members of WVU Team Mountaineers, the winners of the 2023 University Rover Challenge, celebrate in Utah. They are (left to right) Yu Gu, faculty adviser, Spencer Regnier, Kendra Gillo, Zachary Waddell, Shubh Patel, Michael Lemon, Eamonn Payton, Malik Mukdadi, Riley McAllister, Stephen Jacobs, Daniel McDonald and Robert Cook. (Submitted Photo)

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The West Virginia University robotics team, based at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, is the best in the world.

Team Mountaineers topped dozens of other teams from 10 countries in a competition to design and build the next generation of Mars rovers during the 2023 University Rover Challenge held May 31-June 3 at the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah.

“Each team competed in the System Acceptance Review and four missions including equipment servicing, extreme delivery, science, and autonomy for 100 points each,” explained Yu Gu, team faculty adviser and mechanical and aerospace engineering associate professor. “This is the second time for WVU to compete in Utah with Team Mountaineers showing outstanding leadership, teamwork and technical skills.”

The student-led, cross-disciplinary team is comprised of more than 75 undergraduate students and five graduate student mentors from the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering.

The 11 members of the robotics team making the trip to Utah were mechanical and aerospace engineering students Stephen Jacobs, team lead and graduate student, Robert Cook, Daniel McDonald, Eamonn Payton and Spencer Regnier. Representatives from the Lane Department included Kendra Gillo, Michael Lemon, Riley McAllister, Malik Mukdadi, Shubh Patel and Zachary Waddell.

“Last year, we learned a huge amount,” Jacobs said. “Before going to finals, we only had pictures of the terrain and competition elements to base our design and strategy. This year, we used our firsthand experience to greatly improve our rover and past experiences also taught us that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong. We spent many hours anticipating, fixing and mitigating problems and it paid off in the end.”  

In addition to winning the overall competition, the WVU robotics team received top scoring in several categories.

First and a 100 perfect score were recorded in the Science Mission in which soil samples were collected for life detection. The team carefully followed procedures and managed to successfully identify chlorophyll, calcium carbonate, and a lack of life in the three samples using an onboard spectrometry system leading with the highest science score of the competition. 

In the Extreme Retrieval and Delivery Mission, Team Mountaineers came in first by traveling a long distance over complex terrain with the manipulation of irregular objects.

“The rumor around this competition was that there was a rock location and identification task which only one team had completed to that point and to remain competitive we needed to find that rock,” Jacobs said. “Our strategy was to use our overhead map to cover as much of the search area as possible. Things were looking bleak with 90 seconds left when Payton, our robot operator, yelled out, ‘It’s wood!’ as he drove directly over the sample of petrified wood we were looking for.”

The team received the second highest score in the System Acceptance Review, where teams must submit a written report and a short video describing and demonstrating the design and capabilities of the rover to perform the required tasks with a scientific plan and team management.

In the Equipment Servicing Mission, the team scored the second highest score by performing operations on an equipment system after traveling up to 0.25 kilometers.

Student competition teams, like the University Rover Challenge team, function through many areas of support. The MAE and LCSEE departments, NASA WV Space Grant Consortium, AccuTrex Products Inc., and the Mary Josephine DeWitt Endowment for student design projects in the MAE department played a big role in the team’s support and the expertise provided by the Lane Innovation Hub.

“In the Lane Innovation Hub we were able to manufacture all of the metal components for the suspension system, tubing that was bent and welded together, welded chassis frame and robotic arm manipulators — critical for performing gathering rocks, tools and placing and delivering them in complex environments or typing on keyboard and press buttons on mock mars lander,” said Spencer Regnier, manipulation sub-team lead and a recent graduate in mechanical engineering.

Overall, Gu said many people share in the team’s success.

“This win is also the fruit of six years of hard work by hundreds of WVU students, including those who are currently here and who have graduated, those who have been to Utah and who have stayed back, those who boldly proposed new ideas and those who were quietly making sure everything worked perfectly,” Gu said. 



Marketing and Communications Director
WVU Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources

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