Coding the Mars Rover

Student working on Mars Rover robot
Physics students receive practical experience through 3D printing and programming a “Mars Rover” robot.

The multi-stage Mars Rover Project requires physics students to design parts to construct their robot in a 3D modeling program, 3D print the pieces they create, and assemble the robot. Meanwhile, they are coding the robot to complete a series of tasks reminiscent of missions the Mars Rover might have performed.

The project was started by Dr. Zach Robinson as part of the Instrumentation Lab as a way to improve students’ coding skills in an engaging way offering a much different experience than in the past.

“The whole thing is like a trick to make students have fun learning how to code,” said Robinson. “The Instrumentation Lab used to be training students how to use instruments we had around the department, but it’s a lot better to teach them how to make their own instruments and program them.”

The programming portion consists of three main tasks: avoiding obstacles, finding a light source to self-charge under, and searching for signs of life by detecting certain chemicals in the air — in this case, they used alcohol.

“The alcohol detection was the trickiest part because you’re essentially looking for the highest point of concentration,” said physics major Scott Lewis. “So the robot would have to go through and detect all the different levels and then go back to where it was highest.”

In addition to the coding experience, the project also gives students valuable experience with problem solving through trial and error, and collaboration with one another.

“When they’re working on it, they’re always huddled in a group and helping each other out,” Robinson said. “They definitely engage with it more than they would anything else.”

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