A Barmitzvah inspires Joel’s Mars rover

April 28, 2018 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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What do a vegetarian cattle farmer, a Jewish Barmitzvah DJ, a smart country boy from Kilmore and a quiet Chinese migrant have in common?

Joel Kuperholz [rt] and the rover

Well, if you answered they won Melbourne’s Monash University robotics competition and are now spearheading the first team from the Southern Hemisphere to be accepted into the highly competitive University Rover Challenge in Utah, in preparation for Mars, you’d be right!

For those of you who didn’t see that coming, this is how the story unfolded.

Two years ago, these four engineering students, Benjamin Steer, Joel Kuperholz, Ayden Monsant and Micheal Fong found themselves grouped together to be one of the 79 teams in Monash Engineering tasked to design, build, code and create a robot to complete a predetermined obstacle course and perform various mechanical movements and functions for the ‘Warman Design and Build Competition’. Most of the universities in Australia and NZ  include compulsory participation in this highly practical competition as a core unit in engineering.

Joel Kuperholz the DJ

The team of second year mechanical, mechatronics and aerospace engineering students from Monash’s Clayton campus initially won their campus competition with a device that completed the course in 17 seconds. But once they were through to the nationals, competing with the best of universities from Australia, NZ and Malaysia, they decided to completely re-design and rebuild  their device. They worked seven days a week on their robotic rover, often pulling all nighters and revolutionised their design. The Warman competition is designed to test students’ ability to build real prototype systems. They were judged on speed, weight, accuracy and reliability.

Joel returned to uni at midnight after DJing a space themed Barmitzvah which had replica rocket ships. “The breakthrough came when I was studying the decorations at a Barmy and realised we could detach components once they had fulfilled their function, just like the space shuttle.”Joel explained. “I re-read the design brief, and knew we could revolutionise our design, it was so liberating!”

The average time taken for devices in the national competition to complete the course was 24.5 seconds. The Monash Clayton team got a standing ovation when their rover completed the course in just 5 seconds!

They cleaned up the prize pool winning for best performance as well as best design.

The four students knew that although they entered the process as strangers, they had become great friends and had an exceptionally successful working dynamic.

The team mates didn’t need much convincing when Joel proposed they work as a team in the Israeli inspired ‘Tikkun Olam Makeathon’ which was a 72 hour challenge to design and build a practical solution for constraints faced by people with disabilities. The four friends were joined by other volunteers and entrusted to help a young lady in a wheelchair to overcome the problem of mounting steps and curbs which curtailed her movements. The team embraced the challenge and came up with a set of magnetic ramps attached to long handles so that she could attach them to her wheelchair and use the ramps by herself. Their invention meant that she could enter stores or cross roads that would otherwise be inaccessible to her, and she recently fulfilled her lifetime desire to travel to Europe independently!

The four team mates formed a committee and decided to become the first Australian team to compete in the University Rover Challenge (URC) by the Mars Society, a robotics competition for university level students that challenges teams to design and build a rover that would be of use to early explorers on Mars. The competition is held annually at the Mars Desert Research Station, outside Hanksville, Utah in the United States.

The group of students, begun communications and designs to turn their lofty ambitions into reality.  They started to source components and materials which they paid for out of their own pockets while they contacted the Mars Society to determine logistics and requirements. The news from Utah was that although a couple of Australian teams had applied in the past, none had ever passed the Critical Design Review. The University Rover Challenge, has grown to include the European Rover ChallengeCanadian International Rover Challenge, and the Indian Rover Challenge so the Aussie team mates were very new at the table of long established university entrants with all the benefits of past experience, learned knowledge and huge recourses. They were told that “it takes most teams 2 years worth of development to get to the point of passing the CDR” and “most first timer rovers just aren’t ready or capable enough”.

Joel, Ben Aiden and Micheal together with two new friends jumped into action and received great immediate support from the department of mechanical and aerospace engineering. They were given a generous grant and workspace so it was time to recruit some more talent! After putting up a few signs around campus, sifting through over 100 applications and interviewing numerous skilled candidates, the Nova Rover Team was created.

Boasting a multi-disciplinary team including students from Science, Law, Business, Engineering and Medicine, the 15 members applied cross-disciplinary learnings into the design of the rover.  The highly dedicated team worked nights, days off, semester holidays and weekends in their workshop that includes a napping area of a camp mattress in a cupboard.

The Science team’s geological understanding of the Mars environment, combined with the design expertise of the Engineering team resulted in a rover design that can potentially be used in future manned missions to the Red Planet. It includes a 360 degree camera with a virtual reality headset which gives the earthbound operator a full view of what the rover can ‘see’. The Nova Rover is equipped with a robotic arm with 6 joints for maximum movement and ability, also controlled remotely by innovative control system. In order to maximise useful research and learning of life on Mars, the Nova Rover includes a hollow stem auger to drill into the surface soil and a spectrometer to add cutting edge analysis of the regolith covering the planet.

All this would not have been possible without serious financial support and resources. Thankfully their star had been recognised by some important international organisations as well as the many innovative faculties at Monash University including Science and Engineering.  Another generous sponsor to support the team came from Boeing Aerostructures Australia, who provided the team with a fascinating tour of their plant as well as a generous financial grant.

Joel and his team of ambitious, dedicated and innovative students have already beaten the odds and achieved the unthinkable.  While juggling full time studies and between 1-5 Bar and Bat Mitzvahs a week as his social and creative outlet, Joel has dedicated himself to the design and build of an exceptional Mars Rover in record time and yes; they have been accepted by the Mars Society as the first team in the Southern Hemisphere to compete!

95 international teams, representing some of the best and most famous universities from all over the world registered for the 2018 University Rover Challenge. 72 made the first round and 36 were selected to compete in Utah 31 May to 2 June.

Nova Rover will be flying to Utah with its 15 creators to show the world what young Aussies can do! Despite their newness and lack of previous experience in the competition, they are not arriving as underdogs. They have actually come out of nowhere and are ranked in the top ten already! It seems that these 15 young Aussie entrepreneurs are shooting, not just for the stars; but actually way past them, to Mars. And they may just get there, and if they do, you can be sure Joel will be hosting Bar Mitzvahs there!

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