University of Oklahoma Sooner Rover Team Takes Top Honors in NASA’s Robo-Ops Challenge

The University of Oklahoma’s Sooner Rover Team took top honors in NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage Robo-Ops Challenge, besting seven other universities around the nation, as well as an engineering team from NASA. Besides bragging rights, the team won $6,000 in prize money.

University of Oklahoma Sooner Rover Team (Jawanza N. Bassue)

Last October, teams received $10,000 from NASA to build a remotely-operated planetary rover prototype. The professional team from NASA received the same budget and adhered to the same requirements as the collegiate teams. Each group competed with their rovers at NASA Johnson Space Center’s Rock Yard in Houston, an environment similar to The Red Planet.

Teams were required to control their creations from afar, simulating astronaut-guided rover exploration over long distances. Cameras transmitted video from the rovers back to the universities’ “mission control centers.” The teams relied on these video feeds, complete with communications delays, to serve as the rover’s “eyes and ears.” The Sooner Rover Team directed their rover, affectionately named “Rovie McRoverface,” from OU in Norman and blasted the competition with a score totaling more than the combined scores of their seven collegiate competitors.

Nathan Justus, aerospace engineering senior in the Gallogly School of Engineering, is chief engineer of OU’s nine-member team, which includes Bill Doyle, Jacob Jordan, Dane Schoelen, Brent Wolf, Timothy Turner, Eric Handry, Alex Bordering and Brian Brown. David Miller served as faculty sponsor and coach. During the competition, most of the team remained on the OU campus, remotely controlling the rover, while Justus and another teammate watched in person at the Rock Yard.

“Instead of NASA’s traditional box structure, our rover used a spine, which is more robust and capable of handling obstacles,” Justus explained. “With this design, OU brought a giant caterpillar to a jeep competition.”

Justus credits the development and success of the rover to the hard work and long nights that all the teammates contributed over several months.
“This group is incredibly self-motivated,” Miller said. “I supplied some ideas and gave them feedback, but almost all of the implementation and details of the design have come from them.”

The rover’s performance at the Rock Yard was only part of the score. Teams also were evaluated on their outreach efforts to help spark interest from students and the public in human and robotic planetary exploration. The Sooner Rover Team went to high school robot competitions, conducted demonstrations on campus and kept an active Facebook page tracking their progress. Elementary schools even tuned in live to watch Rovie’s performance.

The Sooner Rover Team returned to campus to cheers from admiring faculty, staff and students and proudly returned Rovie to his home base in the Rawl Engineering Practice Facility.

Associate Dean John Antonio also was on site to welcome the team home. “As the first OU team whose plan was accepted into the contest and on behalf of all the college’s faculty, staff and students, you have made us so very proud,” Antonio told the team. “Innovation drives competition, and competition drives innovation. You have inspired us all.”

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