ABOUT THIS PROJECT
Tell us briefly about your project. Is it a work of art or does it serve another
I'm involved with the Austin Planetarium, a project to build a planetarium, science museum, and technology center in Austin, Texas. We currently run a mobile planetarium, and are continually looking for mobile and portable science exhibits to both inspire interest in science and promote the planetarium project. Building a functional model rover seemed the ideal vehicle for both, being literally both a vehicle and mobile exhibit. At this early stage, as shown in the video, the rover is simply a remotely controlled model, demonstrating the physical structure and mobility of the actual mars rovers. The next phase is to use an iPad to control the rover remotely through an on board video camera, with the option of a time delay to simulate operation at a distant location such as the Moon or Mars. The Moon would have a short 3 second round trip delay, while Mars can vary widely from 6 to 45 minutes. Dantooine, obviously, is too remote to make an effective demonstration.
When did you start working on this project and how long did it take you to complete?
The project was started in early October of 2011. I had originally though that I might have something to show at a November science festival, but that turned out to be a bit optimistic. Work continued on many nights an weekends, with a bit of a last minute crunch to have the rover working in time for the Curiosity Mars rover landing on August 6, 2012. Work will continue for some time, to add additional features, but basic mobility was completed just hours before Curiosity landed safely on Mars.
What was your goal in building this project?
The rovers goal is to educate, inspire, entertain and promote, by demonstrating the function, operation, and scale, and distances involved with interplanetary probes. So far the number one question asked is the relative size of Curiosity and the other rovers.
Does your project help to solve a problem? If so what problem?
The rover was designed in the Mars rovers spirit to create an opportunity to inspire curiosity. The history of Mars missions has had enough problems already, making the more recent successes that much more spectacular. The construction, however, had several problems to solve, the first of which was simply understanding how and why the wheels are mounted the way they are on all the rovers. Even the best of photos does not explain the mechanism, and not surprisingly, it's difficult to get hands experience with the real thing. The rocker bogie wheel system, as I learned is was called, turns out to be one of the most effective parts of the exhibit.
What makes your idea unique?
I've seen remote control model trucks modified to cosmetically resemble the rovers and I've seen plenty of "tank" style robots. At least one museum has a static life size model of the Curiosity rover, but I have yet to see a working functional rover that actually modeled the structure and operation of the rovers, including the steering and suspension system. In addition, the rovers body is designed to allow many different future accessories and experiments beyond basic mobility. The rover includes an i7 running from a solid state disk drive to support such future experiments. That's far more computing power than all of the Mars rovers combined. Lithium polymer batteries provide several hours of operation while adding less than three additional pounds. Unlike Curiosity, I opted against the plutonium power source.
In what capacity are you using bearings and what type of bearings?
The rover currently uses 18 radial bearings, two at each major articulation points. Most are 0.375" x 0.875", but the central rocker joints use a more substantial 0.750" x 1.625" size. None of the bearings are ever intended to rotate more than 180 degrees in normal operation, but the articulation of the rocker-bogie suspension system is extremely smooth and stable.
What is the most important thing you want people to know about your project?
The rover's primary "mission" is to see a planetarium and science museum built in Austin, with a journey of inspiration and exploration along the way. But the next phase in the project requires an iPad as a controller and remote video display. Voting for this project would certainly help with that goal.
How will you use the $5,000 prize?
Perhaps a matching sky crane lander is a bit too ambitious, at least for Earth gravity, but I still have science exhibit and demonstration ideas I'd like to pursue. Our mobile planetarium program stays quite busy throughout the school year, and can always benefit from additional projection, sound, and lighting, and other equipment resources. One of my favorite ideas, with sufficient funding, is to equip the rover with a 360 panoramic camera so that we can operate the rover from within the mobile planetarium, giving a live, full dome, 360 degree view from the rover.