10 June 2021
By Tom Collins
NASA’s Mars 2020 Perseverance mission landed its rover in Jezero Crater on Mars earlier this year and now, Munster Technological University’s own miniature rover has had its maiden voyage. Built to open-source specification plans that were supplied online by NASA (JPL) for people around the world to get involved and expand on the design, the MTU Rover is a miniature version of the Perseverance mission rover.
The driving force behind the MTU Rover is Donal O’Donovan, a lecturer in the Department of Electronic Engineering at MTU for the past 27 years. As an undergraduate student working for the summer in Boston in the 1990s, Donal was greatly inspired by a Russian Space exhibit in the science museum there: “On examining the exhibit, I suddenly realised that a spaceship is built from regular pipes and nuts and bolts, just like you find in your garden shed (almost). From then on, I always wanted to build something like this.”
Two years ago, on coming across the initial website for the NASA OSR rover, Donal decided to experiment with the rover idea by re-purposing the NASA software to enable it to drive an industrial mobile robot that was stored in their lab as a demo for the CoderDojo programme for primary school students, and the success of this project led the way for the MTU Rover plans.
During the past year in lockdown, Donal seized the chance to forge ahead with the MTU Rover plans “As my kids were around the house all the time, and the students were not in the college, I decided that this was the perfect opportunity to do this. I wanted them to see that if they could build something from NASA at their own kitchen table, then they are capable of doing anything they want if they try hard enough. My own kids helped me to build the rover over the last few months and got a great kick out of it.”
It took a year to gather all the parts for the MTU Rover, many of which were 3D printed within the university, and with the help of current Electronic Engineering students, Robert McElligott, who is building the electronics, and Ciarán Fahy, who is responsible for the mapping and localisation software, the MTU Rover finally became a reality. Donal explains how the ultimate goal is to adapt the MTU Rover as a robotic tour guide for the MTU campus “the idea being that an individual arrives at the university and asks the robot to take the person to the office of a particular lecturer. The robot’s task will be to navigate safely to its destination and inform the person that they have reached their destination. This technology is currently being used very effectively in a similar capacity at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).”
Donal is also focusing on the didactic potential of the MTU Rover for attracting primary and secondary school students to study STEM subjects further “I intend to bring the MTU Rover around to primary and secondary schools so students can see that it is possible to build something like this themselves and hopefully inspire them to attempt some project in any discipline that might at first appear overwhelming, but once you dive into it, you can chip away and eventually achieve your goal.”
At the request of Dr Niall Smith, Head of Research at MTU, the MTU Rover will also be used as a visiting exhibit at Blackrock Castle Observatory, where the robot will be driven around to demonstrate some of the technologies on screens so that visitors can gain an understanding of the amount of differing technologies and effort involved in making something like this work. According to Dr Smith “the MTU Rover project is a perfect example of the creativity of the human mind. As we struggle to address issues of energy usage and greenhouse gas emission here on Earth, the drive to explore other worlds forces us to come up with solutions that use lighter materials, smaller instruments, autonomous software that doesn’t require massive computing power, and so much more. By inspiring kids to build “stuff” to send to other planets, we’re honing their skills at using less, not more, to solve problems – including some we have here on Earth. This is an exciting evolution in thinking. We’re so looking forward to displaying a rover built by Donal and his kids at BCO and using it as a tool to inspire clever usage of limited resources to address critical problems sustainably.”
A key feature of the NASA Mars Rover is its autonomous driving capacity which is essential because Mars is simply too far away for humans to give the vehicle constant, real-time, instructions and there is a need to address the time delay issue between Earth and Mars. As Donal explains further “when Mars and the Earth are at opposite sides of the Sun, the distance is the largest at approximately 378 million km. The time needed for an electromagnetic wave to cover this distance is approximately 21 minutes. The closest distance between Mars and Earth is 78 million km, and when the Mars Rover landed on Mars in February, the time difference was 4.3 minutes. From a control perspective, where a tele-operated robot is controlled by looking at an image and deciding on the next-best course of action, a roundtrip is needed, so you have to double the above times. At best, you are looking at 9 minutes approximately, with a worst-case scenario of 42 minutes. For a billion dollar robot, this is not a good idea as it needs to be able to make its own local decisions to ensure that any commands it has been issued with do not end up with the robot at the bottom of a cliff or crashing into a boulder. It is for this reason that the robot needs to be autonomous. We are pursuing a similar strategy for our MTU Rover Tour Guide, and are currently working on making it navigate from a current destination to a designated goal location.”
Over the past fifteen years, Donal has seen perceptions change regarding the Mobile Robotics module, in which he has been teaching the fundamentals of autonomous robot control. According to Donal “initially, the module was considered very exotic, but with the advent of self-driving cars, students see this course as being very relevant these days, and advances in technology have make it possible for us to build systems capable of incredible feats for relatively small amounts of money.”
The Mobile Robotics course provides students with the opportunity to put all the theory that they learn in their other electronic engineering modules to practical use. As Donal explains further “Robotic Engineering is unique in that it glues together all the elements of electrical, electronic, mechanical, and software engineering. Students really enjoy the challenge of the final project in the module. A number of students who graduated from this course worked directly with robots for their final year projects and have done very well going on to work in robot companies at home and abroad, while others have gone on to study robotics at postgraduate level.”
Over the years, the Mobile Robotics course has provided an excellent opportunity for MTU Electrical & Electronic Engineering students to compete on a world stage. Under Donal’s mentorship, MTU undergraduates have been entering robotic competitions since as far back as 2005 when a CIT team took part in the Microsoft Robot Soccer Tournament competing against Warwick, Cambridge and Plymouth universities at Warwick University. In the 2017 National Instruments Student Global Design Competition, a team of CIT Electronic Engineering undergraduates working under Donal’s guidance were placed in the top ten for their project, which involved the conversion of a tele-operated mobile robot platform to one capable of full autonomy, using recognition, obstacle avoidance and GPS waypoint navigation to enable the robot to act as a fully autonomous tour guide for future first year students.
If you are interested in learning more about this Mobile Robotics course or about studying Electrical and Electronic Engineering at MTU, please see: https://www.cit.ie/aboutcit.facultiesandcolleges.engineering_science.electricalengineering