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Washington State University

Out-of-this-world experience

Mars rover team engineers second-place finish at international competition

The rust-colored badlands of the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah, became a proving ground for aspiring engineers from around the world June 2-4. And at the end of three days of competition, students from Washington State University North Puget Sound at Everett stood on the second-place podium at the University Rover Challenge.

The WSU team of nearly 20 mechanical engineers from the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture spent more than a year designing and building their Mars rover with the guidance of WSU clinical associate professor Xiaopeng Bi. Several of the students were May graduates who held off job searches in order to compete.

Blaine Liukko

“I have never had a trophy mean so much to me,” said WSU team member Blaine Liukko, a 24-year-old mechanical engineering major from Lynnwood, Wash. Liukko served as president of the WSU Everett Engineering Club for the 2015-16 academic year.

“We started with a vision my junior year, and throughout my educational career I have put in well over 1,000 hours of blood, sweat, and tears to make that vision become a reality,” Liukko said. “My team came together, each person taking on different responsibilities, to build the best machine we could. Hard work does pay off and the emotions that came along with this accomplishment are second to none.”

World’s premier robotics competition

A project of The Mars Society, the University Rover Challenge is considered the world’s premier robotics competition for college students. Held in the southern Utah desert for the past 9 years, the competition challenges students to design and build the next generation of Mars rovers that are one day expected to work alongside human explorers on the surface of the Red Planet.

The 2016 competition attracted a record 63 teams from 12 countries. Participating for the first time, the WSU team finished runner-up to the Legendary Rover Team from Rzeszow University of Technology in Poland—a group that defended its 2015 title.

Winning teams of University Rover Challenge

Each team received points based on its rover’s performance in several categories, including the ability to travel across rough terrain, pick up and move a variety of tools, and conduct planetary field science, such as testing the soil for elements that might help sustain life.

The WSU team was one of 30 semifinalists representing 7 countries, including the United States, Bangladesh, Canada, Egypt, India, Poland, and South Korea.

The only other American teams to place in the finals represented Cornell University (8th place), Brigham Young University (11th), and the University of Michigan (12th).

Phil Engel, who will return to WSU as a senior next year, was the only student in the competition to earn an individual science award.

An interplanetary experience

“This has been an amazing experience, Liukko said. “Seeing how like-minded students from all around the world tackle the same set of tasks was amazing. We learned from everyone there, finding new ways to do things and making new connections along the way. The cultural experience was one of the best parts of this competition.”

“Seeing how like-minded students from all around the world tackle the same set of tasks was amazing.”

Liukko noted that teamwork was critical to the team’s success as the students fulfilled individual responsibilities ranging from soil analysis to the operation of the chassis of the rover’s robotic arm.

“We learned a lot about how much reliability means to a piece of equipment that is controlled remotely,” he said. “We ended up having a very reliable rover but came up with a lot of things that would make our rover perform even better.”

A career path in engineering

WSU students at the Everett campus apply what they learn in the classroom to real-life projects, giving them a hands-on experience that not all engineering students receive. They gain practical experience in the fields that aerospace and advanced manufacturing companies seek—in electrical, software, and mechanical engineering.

As a result, graduates of the program won’t need to look far to start their careers.

“Like so many of our Voiland College students who participate in clubs and competitions outside the classroom, the Mars rover team worked long hours on their project and gained tremendous, hands-on experience that makes them valuable to employers,” said Candis Claiborn, dean of the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture. “We are all incredibly proud of their inspirational efforts and success.”

Liukko, who earned his associate’s degree at Edmonds Community College before transferring to WSU North Puget Sound at Everett, has started his job search in earnest with a significant addition to his resume

“Graduation was not the end of my school career; this competition was,” he said. “Now that we have completed the University Rover Challenge, I will really begin my search, trying to find a company that follows my passions. I enjoy engineering more than I could have ever hoped and I cannot wait to begin a career doing what I love.”

An investment by the community

Designing and building the Mars rover was expensive and requires some very specific materials. But local industries and the Cougar Nation have been generous.

“It was great to get support from companies like The Boeing Company and Janicki Industries, particularly because some of our team members can and will work there after graduating,” Liukko said.

Boeing and Janicki both donated carbon fiber. Everett Steel, Metal Supermarkets, and Protocase provided aluminum, brass, and stainless steel. To power the rover, Pacific Power Batteries donated a 4.5 pound lithium iron phosphate battery. And Dassault Systemes gave the team software licenses so students could design the rover.

WSU rover competing on course

The team also received start-up contributions from the WSU Foundation, Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, and the Bruce and Barbara Wollstein Endowment in Engineering.

Anyone interested in supporting next year’s team can do so through the WSU Foundation.

Mars rover 2.1

Senior Mitch Elder (below, center) has been elected to succeed Liukko as president of the WSU Everett Engineering Club, and he’s already hard at work planning next year’s rover.

“Next year’s challenge is to take Rover 2.1 to the next level,” he said. “Our team of future seniors has been kicking around ideas for improvement since the end of day one at the Mars Desert Research Station.

Austin Sundseth, Mitch Elder, Stewart Kerns with rover

“We were so proud of our rover and what we accomplished that we were eager to answer questions and showcase everything to other teams,” he said. “Because of this, we are counting on other teams to do things like we did, which means we are going to have to innovate all over again.”

Elder will lead a small team this summer that will strip down the rover to finish the carbon components and anodize all of the aluminum so they can showcase what he describes as a “truly gorgeous product” by the time fall classes start.

“I learned that the C in URC stands for ‘Challenge’ for a reason,” he said. “It is not so much about competing with the other teams as it is about the scientific community coming together to accept the challenge laid before it by the Mars Society. I honestly cannot wait to get back to work.”