CAD Software Inspires Creation of Student-Designed Rover

For thousands of aspiring engineers, the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge is the highlight of their student careers. High school and college teams were invited to design and build two-person pedal-powered vehicles, hosted by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center at the U.S. Space & Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

The mission of the competition: inspire participants to become engineers who will one day design NASA’s next-generation space systems. The contest, which mimicked challenges faced by space explorers, hosted 114 college teams, including a team from Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Connecticut. The CCSU students were assisted by engineers from neighboring CNC Software, Inc.

CCSU Shaft Backplot in Mastercam

The group designed a vehicle that runs on a drivetrain similar to a bicycle. Employing a chain moving between two sprockets, the rover was five feet in length and constructed almost entirely of carbon fiber. Lightweight and robust, the collapsible vehicle had to traverse rugged topography and out-of-this-world obstacles. To the delight of entrants, museum exhibits were incorporated into the racecourse.

“We actually drove through the moon crater exhibit, which is pretty cool, because it’s the closest thing to driving on the moon,” said Tristian Sudac, CCSU student and project leader of the university’s 12-person rover team.

Inspired by Apollo lunar missions and future space exploration, the half-mile course was dotted with 14 obstacles, including moon craters, boulders, and simulated asteroid debris. Two-person teams had to complete tasks such as collecting water and ground samples. To handle the terrain, vehicle sturdiness and size were paramount—each had to fit into a lander equipment bay (5 feet x 5 feet x 5 feet). The CCSU team relied on CAD software for designing its entire rover. One particular component garnered special attention.

“We used Mastercam to design the axle, one of the most crucial parts for us,” said Sudac.

Axle and Sprocket

In the past, the team had performance issues with its rover axle, which was comprised of two or three steel pieces. This year, the students designed a shaft from one solid piece of steel. They modeled the blind shaft in Mastercam, but, unable to manufacture a 4-axis part with CCSU’s machine capabilities, relied on CNC Software Application Engineers to produce the axle. The ¾” x 10” axle was machined from one solid piece of chromoly steel on a Mazak Mill-Turn Integrex i100 ST.

“When it comes to voluntary machine time for schools, we very rarely say no,” said Mark Baker, Applications Engineer, CNC Software, Inc.

The new axle was the heart of the redesigned rover. The team did not place among the top 10 finishers but did create the first composite leaf-suspension system in the NASA challenge. Thanks to a streamlined CAD engine, creating complex parts was simplified.

Sprocket machined

Ke Wang, CNC Software’s Manager of Applications Engineering, said the collaboration with CCSU was mutually beneficial. “Working with students really opens our minds about how the young generation interacts with the software,” he said.

The future of manufacturing looks bright. CNC Software, Inc. will continue to partner with educational institutions and the next generation of CAD/CAM users.

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