A year with the Mars Rover

Not many students get to say they built the Mars Rover over the summer, but that’s exactly the project Electronics and Computer Systems Engineering graduate James Barrett dived into last November and completed throughout his Honours year.

Man sits holding probes to a Mars Rover vehicle.

For James, it all started with tinkering in the garage. “Hardware is so interesting because it’s such an enigma how it all works—the complexity of it drew me in.” As a Wellington local, studying for a Bachelor of Engineering with Honours at Victoria University of Wellington was a natural choice for James, allowing him to combine his love of problem solving and the sciences. “I’ve been able to explore my interests, as well as gain skills that I can apply to solve problems that are relevant to a lot of industries right now.”

In the midst of the tech explosion, project areas as diverse as spacecraft, educational tools, and computer vision are some of the plethora of options available for exploration. James was lucky enough to find a project that united all three. “As courses become more project-oriented throughout your degree, you start to explore in the areas that play well to your strengths. NASA released an open source model for the Mars Rover online, and my supervisor (Associate Professor Will Browne) suggested this would be a great platform for exploring computer vision—and also one that stimulates interest as an educational tool.”

James’ build started with the shell and components of the Rover, which he finished as part of his summer scholarship. He continued with the project during his Honours year, moving past the original NASA guidelines to install extra features. “I added in a means of controlling it via Xbox controller, which I thought was pretty fun! And also a big screen on the back, so that children can see information in a visually appealing way. Where the Rover’s at now, it can perform object detection, it can map out its environment, and it can also identify types of fruit.”

James and Will came up with fruit picking as a unique application for the Rover. “It’s so topical in New Zealand and there’s a lot of money thrown at it. It’s a potential solution for lack of workers in rural areas—and it’s also an interesting aspect that kids can relate to when the Rover is being demonstrated.”

James believes much of the academic value of the project also comes from the Rover’s visual abilities. “It answers questions posed by the computer vision field around computationally restricted algorithms, which basically means that it’s currently hard to carry around big powerful computers on a robot! We need to design algorithms able to perform on smaller computers that can be transported, and optimise them for what the platform can do.”

While research in the object detection field continues, the Mars Rover is enjoying an alternate existence as an outreach tool. James took the Rover to Thorndon School, where it was met with fascination. “The kids were so interested in how it all worked—the hardest part was keeping them from putting their fingers in the electronics. Based on that demonstration, I think it’ll be a really effective tool for our Outreach team.”

With this stage of the Rover build completed, James will hand the project to an up-and-coming Honours student: probably for implementation of a fruit picking manipulator. Meanwhile, he’s beginning a summer internship with Wellington company Tekron. “I think the range of skills required in mechatronics—hardware, software, human considerations—have prepared me really well for complex projects in industry. Developing the learning autonomy that’s required in studying engineering at a high level has been really cool. A huge amount of the general and technical know-how I’ve gained from this project can be applied in my future roles.”