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I spoke with Jose Antelo, Luis Toledo, and Francisco Fernandez, members of the California State University (CSU) Fullerton Rover Challenge team and students who are working on building a competitive robotic platform to compete with other universities in a competition hosted by The Mars Society.
Andy Shaughnessy: Jose, as the team leader of the CSU Fullerton Rover Challenge team, give us a quick rundown about the team, how it works, and what you have been doing.
Jose Antelo: We are a multidisciplinary team of college students, mainly mechanical computer scientists and electrical engineers, representing CSU Fullerton at the University Rover Challenge. We built a competitive robotic platform to compete against international teams and a robotic exploration platform to assist astronauts on planets, like Mars. We have to build a robust mechanical and electrical system as well as computer communication and control systems. We work around the clock, year-round, to make this happen.
Shaughnessy: Is your vehicle similar to the Mars lander?
Antelo: Exactly. Our platform is teleoperated and autonomous. There are some tasks that are required in our collaborative robots, so they’re meant to work alongside a human. We designed and manufactured all the components in-house from scratch. We have a robotic arm and mobility system in addition to a drivetrain system, so it’s a cool opportunity for us as students to learn and collaborate with people from other disciplines, such as computer scientists and electrical engineers.
Shaughnessy: And what is your major?
Antelo: I’m a mechanical engineer with a minor in computer science. I’ve been pursuing a career in the automation industry since I started college. I started out in high school with Vex Robotics, and my passion and interests grew from there to the point where we’re making custom robots now.
Shaughnessy: Are you all involved with circuit boards?
Antelo: Absolutely. Altium sponsored us with some software licenses, so that’s where the electrical engineers come in and make custom breakout boards and PCBs for our platform, making the entire system more serviceable and adding functionality to the whole system.
Shaughnessy: And Luis, you are the former team leader?
Luis Toledo: Yes. For the 2018–2019 platform, I was the electrical lead for the project. Seven other members that were all EEs worked under me. We were in charge of building all of the electrical systems, from the robotic arm to mobility and the communication systems. We worked on power distribution boards—sometimes Ethernet switches and voltage regulators—and also an autonomous tracking system where our antennas tracked and followed the direction of the rover to mitigate any sort of signal loss. We designed the PCBs to reduce the amount of wiring, which reduced the weight on the rover. One of the rules in our competition was that we had a certain weight limit that we had to meet.
By doing all of these PCBs, we’ve managed to mitigate the number of components and wiring in the whole system. Also, right before the task, we had a time limit of setting up the rover and launching it, so making all these PCBs this way reduced our time in setup. It made it easy to put in all of the components, service it much more easily, and send it out, which reduced the number of errors or amount of troubleshooting that we had to do throughout the system.
Shaughnessy: That’s very cool. And Francisco, are you still at the school?
Francisco Fernandez: I’m a third-year electrical engineer. I joined the team last semester, and since then, I’ve helped with soldering projects and creating a PCB and breakout board for one of the main computer systems powering the rover. That was important because we needed something to test all of the outlets on it so that our controls team could get in there and test out what they needed.
Shaughnessy: And all of you have competed in the Rover Challenge, right?
Antelo: Absolutely. It’s a great competition. Every year, over 100 teams submit petitions to compete in the University Rover Challenge, which is hosted by The Mars Society. Every team has certain milestones they have to meet. There’s a systems acceptance review where we have to write a technical report and shoot a five-minute video showing the robotic platform in action, proving to the judges that our team is competition-ready. Out of the 100 teams that apply, only 36 are invited to compete. We’ve worked really hard in the last six years to continue to be re-invited to compete.
Last year, we placed 25th out of 36 that were present at the competition. This year, we’re aiming to be in the top three. I’m pushing the team as hard as I can because everybody has school and work schedules, etc. It’s hard because we are still students, after all. But at the end of the day, we have a goal and a project to complete, and I believe we can get into the top three; it’s just a matter of meeting our milestones and meeting our deadlines. The mechanical team is working right now to finish up their designs so that we can start manufacturing early and deliver a finished mechanical platform to the electrical and computer science team so that they can do their systems integration.
Shaughnessy: I wish you the best of luck in the competition.
Antelo: Thank you so much, Andy.
Titan Rover website.
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