Open Spaces
6:35 pm
Fri April 20, 2012

UW students design and build mock lunar rovers

A team of UW engineering students recently traveled to Alabama to compete in NASA’s annual moon buggy race. The race is for high school and college students who have designed and built non-motorized vehicles that resemble lunar rovers. Teams from all over the world participated, on a race course meant to resemble the surface of the moon. The winning moon buggies aren’t actually going to space, but as Wyoming Public Radio’s Willow Belden reports, the project is a major learning experience for the students.

WILLOW BELDEN: I caught up with the four students a week before the race, in an engineering lab on campus. They were putting the finishing touches on their moonbuggy – tightening bolts, adjusting angles, testing the moving parts.  The contraption had four mountain bike wheels and looked a little like a recumbent bicycle – for two people. Team member Davis Fay walked me through the design.

DAVIS FAY: We have two seats, sitting back to back, and outside of those seats, and outside of those seats we have this extendable arm, on which we’ve mounted a pair of bike pedals.

BELDEN: The pedals were to propel the vehicle – one of the race stipulations is that the moon buggies have to be human powered. After making a few adjustments, the team members wheeled their moon buggy outdoors for a test run. Fay and his teammate Leslie Young clipped on their seat belts.

DAVIS FAY: Ready to rock? … A little victory lap around Prexy’s? Pre-victory. Here we go.

AMBI: moon buggy taking off

BELDEN: Heads turned as the moonbuggy took off down a walkway. After a few laps around Prexy’s Pasture, Fay and Young paused to practice folding and unfolding the moon buggy. That’s also part of the rules -- the moon buggies have to start the race folded up into a four-foot cube … and assembling them counts toward your overall time.

FAY: Ready? Three, two, one.

AMBI: folding/unfolding moon buggy

BELDEN: The team did countless test runs … though they say nothing quite prepared them for the ruggedness of the terrain they would face in Alabama. The race course was designed to resemble the surface of the moon, with hefty craters and bumps. The purpose of the race was to get students to design a vehicle that could handle the obstacles, without flipping, getting stuck or of course falling apart.

The students’ advisor, Dennis Coon, says that might not sound so hard, but it’s actually a complicated engineering challenge.

DENNIS COON: They don’t want something that’s too fast, because it will probably crash; it won’t be agile enough. They don’t want something that’s too agile, because it probably won’t be fast enough to win. They have to walk a middle ground.

BELDEN: And team members say that’s hard. They spent countless hours designing a joint that would allow the moon buggy’s frame to pivot in three different directions, so it could absorb shocks without losing too much speed. Still, they weren’t sure how their vehicle would perform on the bumpy lunar obstacle course.

BELDEN: What are you worried about for the race?

DENNIS: Crashing.

LESLIE YOUNG: Ending up on my head (laughs).

BELDEN: The team did have some mechanical problems during the race. But they still came in sixth out of about 90 teams. And Coon says that even though they didn’t win, they learned a lot – which was the whole point of the race – AND they now have a better shot at finding jobs.

COON: Taking with an employer, they can sit down and say, ‘This is what I’m capable of doing. Here’s what I knew going in. Here’s what I wanted to accomplish coming out. This is how I solved the problem. Here’s how well it worked. And here’s what I’ve learned from that.’

BELDEN: Young and her team mates say they plan to do just that.

YOUNG: It’s right at the top of my resume. I hope it shows that we’ve had some hands-on experience and some team-building experiences, and that we are just able to know the engineering process and what it takes to do something like this.

BELDEN:  None of the UW team members are looking for space-related careers, but Coon says the skills they learned from the moonbuggy project are applicable to pretty much any engineering job.

COON: The basic problem they’re facing is how to reach a compromise. And what the extremes of that compromise are will be different with the different types of industries that they go into. But how to effectively identify the compromise – how to weigh the various options – how to look for an optimum – that is very general. You can go into pretty much any sort of a mechanical engineering career.

BELDEN: And team members feel that puts them in the running to compete for jobs on an international level. For Wyoming Public Radio, I’m Willow Belden.