Launching a career
Recent UMass-Lowell graduate from Wilton helps team win collegiate Mars Rover-style competition
Mike Lunderville of Wilton was one of the members of a UMass Lowell team that entered the winning robot in a national competition — organized by NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace — which asked them to build a Mars rover-style robot and operate it via remote control. Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »
The UMass Lowell Mars Rover-style robot was controlled remotely by students from their operation center in Lowell, while the robot was in Houston, on the ground used to test actual NASA Rovers. The students had to make the robot pick up painted stones and alien figurines for points. Purchase photo reprints at Photo Finder »
Houston, we have a winner.
Mike Lunderville of Wilton graduated from UMass-Lowell in June with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics and a minor in computer science. But it’s his spot on the winning team in the RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops Competition, organized by NASA and the National Institute of Aerospace, that’ll truly stand out on his resume.
Lunderville was part of a team of classmates that built a miniature Mars Rover that swept the competition at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.
Robotics aren’t Lunderville’s specialty, but while at UMass-Lowell, his skills in the computer sciences landed him an internship writing software for a graduate student in the robotics lab. And that experience led him to take a Robotics I course, where the entire class pitched in to build a robot to enter into a national competition put on by NASA. Each student worked in a small group on one aspect of the same robot. And Lunderville’s team was crucial: Building and programming the robot arm that would be able to pick up items and store them.
Lunderville was one of the few people in the class who had significant programming experience, he said in an interview Monday, and he was put in charge of writing the software that controlled the robot arm.
The team called itself the Rover Hawks, which is a play on the name of the college’s sports teams, the River Hawks. Their Rover had to weigh less than 150 pounds and fit within a one-meter-by-one-meter footprint, while only standing as tall as a half-meter. And while working with such a large group of college students with varying degrees of commitment to the project made some of the steps arduous, as a whole, the construction of the robot went smoothly, Lunderville said.
“It’s students, and done for a class, so of course not all students are going to have the same level of interest,” Lunderville said. “The most difficult thing I came across was communication, and making sure everyone was on the same page. But with the actual building, we didn’t have any significant bumps. It was just a lot of time to put in.”
And certainly, all the members of his team were putting in between 10 and 30 hours a week on the arm alone, Lunderville said.
The actual competition was held on June 4 through June 6, after the students had graduated. Some stayed on to finish the project or came back to help during the actual competition, hired temporarily as lab members at the college. Lunderville said he wasn’t able to stay for the tail end of the month, because he had been hired as a data analyst almost immediately after his graduation.
After a semester of working on it, it was time for the final test — the actual competition. And while the competition is held in Houston at the Johnson Space Center, on the very training grounds where the real Mars Rover is tested, only a lucky handful of students were actually on site for the challenge to make any last minute repairs to the robot. Lunderville was offered the opportunity to be one of the three students on-site in Houston, but he couldn’t take the week off from his new job. The rest of the students were back at “mission control” at UMass-Lowell, where they had to control their robot from 1,800 miles away through a 4G connection.
“You have to navigate against sand and gravel, which is hard to begin with, and you have to know where you are throughout the rock yard,” said Lunderville. “And you have to overcome a significant difficulty in that you’re communicating over a 4G network, so there’s significant delay and the video isn’t very high quality.”
The miniature Rovers had an hour to go around the arena, negotiating hills to pick up painted rocks for points. They also searched for a Gumby figurine that represented an “alien” for bonus points.
This was the first year UMass-Lowell had sported a team at the competition, and they were up against schools that had been participating for years, noted Lunderville. Among the eight competing teams, their biggest competition was Worcester Polytechnic Institute, which has won the competition for the last two years.
“We were a first-year team up against teams that had already been in this competition before, some who had won multiple times. Our students put in a great effort to build and program the Rover Hawk for competition,” UMass-Lowell Computer Science Professor Holly Yanko, the team’s faculty advisor, is quoted as saying in a press release issued by UMass-Lowell.
But at the end of the day, it was UMass Lowell that got the most points and the glory of first place. And one of the defining points in that victory was Lunderville’s team’s contribution — the robot arm. Most teams had used a “scoop” at the end of their arm to pick up their rocks, Lunderville said. The UMass-Lowell robot, however, implemented a “claw,” more like what you’d see in arcade games. Although more difficult to use, it was better at retrieving rocks, and the extra work turned out to be worth it in the end.
The team was also scored on its efforts in public education about the contest that engaged people through social media.
Now that Lunderville has graduated, he has moved to Quincy, Mass. to start a job as a data analyst with Plymouth Rock Assurance, a Boston-based insurance company, where he was hired directly after graduation.
Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.