Mars rover team wins second in international competition

By Randy Bolerjack, WSU Everett

EVERETT, Wash. – The rust-colored badlands of the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah became a proving ground for aspiring engineers from around the world over the weekend. And at the end, students from the Washington State University North Puget Sound at Everett Mars rover team stood on the second-place podium.

The team of nearly 20 mechanical engineers from the Voiland College of Engineering and Architecture, several of them recent graduates who have held off job searches in order to compete, spent more than a year designing and building their Mars rover. Meant to work alongside human explorers on the surface of the Red Planet, it must be tough enough to cross rough terrain, agile enough to pick up and move a variety of tools and smart enough to test soil for elements that might help sustain life.

Rover 4
Blaine Liukko

Blaine Liukko, a 24-year-old mechanical engineering major from Lynnwood, Wash., has been president of the WSU Everett Engineering Club for the 2015-16 academic year.

“I have never had a trophy mean so much to me,” he said. “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. 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.”

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

The only other American teams to place in the University Rover Challenge (URC) finals were Cornell University, eighth place, Brigham Young University, 11th place, and the University of Michigan, 12th place. Teams from Poland took first and third.

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

Mars WSU
Students work on the WSU Mars rover on campus earlier this year.

“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.”

Teamwork was also critical to the team’s success. The students had responsibilities ranging from soil analysis to the chassis to the robotic arm, all coming together under Liukko’s leadership.

“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 Everett students are applying what they learn in real-life projects, giving them a hands-on experience that not all engineering students obtain through their education. They are getting practical experience in the fields that aerospace and advanced manufacturing companies are looking for – electrical, software and mechanical engineering.

And they won’t need to look far to start their careers.

Liukko, who earned his associate’s degree at Edmonds Community College before transferring to WSU Everett, will begin 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.”

The WSU Everett Mars rover can next be seen publicly in Liukko’s hometown during Lynnwood Mayor Nicola Smith’s State of the City address on June 16.

“I could not be happier, nor could I be more proud of my team,” Liukko said.

Mars rover 2.1

Senior Mitch Elder 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.

“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.”

He 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.”