April 15, 2015

Update (4/30/2015): The LSU team ranked sixth among the college groups from around world and third among college groups from the United States. They also received the Rookie of the Year award for the college division.

“We said a kumbaya before, and it ran flawlessly,” said Chandler Scheuermann, one of the team members. “It was nothing short of relieving. We put in the hard work, and it performed.”

In addition to achieving their goals on the course, they also succeeded in generating interest among lower classmen who want to compete in the challenge in the future.

 “We wanted this to become a trademark project,” Scheuermann said. “We want Mike I to become Mike II … and then Mike X.”

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Editor's note: This is the original story about the team's participation in the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge. It was published on April 15, days before the competition, with the headline "Students to Compete in NASA Rover Challenge." The headline has been changed to reflect the challenge results. 

While most students spent spring break soaking up the sun, a team of five mechanical engineering seniors holed up in the Engineering Laboratory Annex, putting the finishing touches on a project that has taken them all academic year to complete.

“The sand and sun would have been nice,” joked Chandler Scheuermann. “But this is worth it.”

Scheuermann, along with Robert “Kevin” Fink, Andrew Perkins, Derek Duplessis, and Wes LeBlanc, have designed and built a human-powered rover from scratch to compete in the 2015 NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge. The challenge, which takes place at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., this week, requires students to race their homemade rovers through a .75-mile obstacle course simulating the terrain potentially found on distant planets, asteroids, or moons.

The rovers—which look similar to tandem, reclining bicycles—must also adhere to a strict set of requirements. The vehicles must be light enough for the pair of drivers to lift and carry it for 20 feet without aid, for example, and must be able to collapse to fill no more than five cubic feet, among other rules.

The LSU team is one of 80 high school and college groups from 18 states, Puerto Rico, Germany, India, Mexico and Russia participating in this year’s race. Each will be judged on design, construction, and race time.

This is the first time LSU will be represented at the challenge. The team, which designed and built the rover as part of their required senior design project, was inspired to compete after seeing other Southeastern Conference schools participate.

“I saw other schools do it, and do it well,” Scheuermann said, noting Auburn University’s track record. “It’s not just sports; nerds can be competitive, too.”

After gaining approval for the new project, the group got to work. They spent the fall semester designing the rover and raising money to purchase the necessary materials, and they’ve used the spring semester to bring the design to life.

“We’ve been putting in 80-hour work weeks,” Scheuermann said, noting that every part, with the exception of a few pieces, like the handle grips, was made in-house. “There was no instruction manual. There were just some pictures on the Internet. Is this good? Is this bad? Is this the right way to do this? We hadn’t seen anything.”

For that reason, Fink said, they experienced their fair share of growing pains. He said they have a “graveyard” of about 200 parts they created that broke, or simply didn’t work out.

“Everyday we expected something to go wrong,” he said. “It’s been a challenge, but there was never anything we couldn’t handle.”

Those hard-learned lessons made the experience even more valuable, he said.

“We took small steps, and that increased the quality of our work,” he said. “You really learn when you do it yourself. I feel like I’m much more experienced now.”

Scheuermann agreed: “Four months ago, I couldn’t tell you how to effectively use a lathe or a mill, but now, if you ask for some wonky part, I can go in and make it for you.”

But the lessons weren’t limited to the rover’s construction, he added.

“This has been the full spectrum: project management, interpersonal skills, fundraising. We’re juggling a lot of different things at once. It’s a crash course in what it actually means to do this [professionally]. It’s a great introduction that will help us when we enter the workforce, and hopefully, make LSU proud of us.”

The team credits the LSU College of Engineering and their sponsors for helping them along the way. Jacobs Technology, Geocent and Jack Retting all donated to the project.

Bob Fudickar, director of business development for Jacobs Technology, which operates NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, said it wasn’t a hard sell.

“When we heard LSU was doing the NASA rover challenge and that they were the only team in Louisiana, we wanted in on that,” he said. “We wanted to know how we could help.”

Fudickar said he has followed the project’s progress, and he is confident the rover will perform well at the competition.

“I think they’ve got a real shot at this thing,” he said. “I’ve been having them send me photos … and I’m excited and overwhelmed to see their fabulous work.”

The students are optimistic, too, and excited to see their work pay off on the course.

“Right now, we’re working to cross T’s and dot I’s and get it into race fashion,” Scheuermann said. “Every inch it has moved forward has been exciting for us. Before, we just had an empty floor space and about a $1,000 worth of metal and bolts. To see it months later, sitting in front of you, is cool. All of this is a testament to what we’re doing here at CoE.”

After the competition—and after catching up on much-needed sleep—the rover will spend time at the State Capitol for “NASA Day” in Baton Rouge and at the Michoud facility in New Orleans, before returning to LSU. Back at home, the team will evaluate their work and make recommendations on how to make it better for the next year.

“The icing on the cake will be laying the foundation for students who come after us,” Scheuermann said. “We want LSU to become a benchmark team in the competition.”

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For more information contact Sydni Dunn, LSU College of Engineering, 225-578-5706, sydnid@lsu.edu



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