Highland News Leader

Highland grad helps design Mars rover that leaves competition in the dust

The Missouri University of Science and Technology Mars Rover Design Team at the international 2017 University Rover Challenge. The team is standing on the site of the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah, with their rover Gryphon. The team claimed first place out of 36 teams.
The Missouri University of Science and Technology Mars Rover Design Team at the international 2017 University Rover Challenge. The team is standing on the site of the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah, with their rover Gryphon. The team claimed first place out of 36 teams. Provided photo

One day, astronauts will be aided by a Mars rover designed by a Highland native and her classmates at the Missouri University of Science and Technology.

Katelyn Brinker, 22, and her team won first place in the University Rover Challenge over the weekend in Hanksville, Utah. Brinker is a 2013 Highland High School graduate.

“We’re the first United States team to win in seven years,” said Brinker, the daughter of Joe and Lisa Brinker. “We’re super excited and so happy our hard work paid off.”

The Utah desert is a good substitute for the rocky landscape of Mars. During the competition, college teams from all over the world used their hand-built, next-generation rover prototypes to accomplish four tasks. Teams were scored based on how their rovers performed.

The Missouri S&T Mars Rover Design Team, made up of 50 students, earned the top spot out of a field of 36 teams that included Ivy League school Cornell University. There were 73 points between Brinker’s team and the second-place team.

“This achievement could not have been made without the months of hard work from all our team members, and the support from all of those who believed in our purpose,” the team said on its Facebook page. “Thanks to all of those who helped these members receive their well-deserved recognition, and showing the world how we #RoveSoHard!”

Winning the challenge means the team earned a cash prize, a trip to present at the annual International Mars Society Convention and a trophy.

“Most of all, it gives you the ability to say that you have the best rover in the world,” Brinker said. “There is a huge sense of pride that comes with winning after how much work we put into this project.”

But the competition yields more than just bragging rights.

“Besides being an opportunity to put our rover to the test, the competition also allows you to meet people from all over the world who are also interested in space technology and are passionate about the same project you are, which is really cool,” Brinker said.

A world-class rover

Brinker’s team competed with a rover they nicknamed Gryphon.

They dedicated more than 100,000 hours of work to their machine. Brinker said that most of her team would spend 15-hour days working on the Missouri S&T campus in Rolla, Missouri.

“Our rover is one-of-a-kind,” Brinker said. “As a team, we’ve designed and fabricated a majority of it ourselves.”

Gryphon has a suspension design that has never been used. The team also designed custom 3D printed circuit boards and technology that is used for soil analysis.

In addition to leading the science team, Brinker designed two printed circuit boards, wrote code for the them and their systems and developed spectrometer data-processing software.

“Our team is constantly trying to innovate and push both ourselves and space technology further,” Brinker said.

Competition tasks

During the competition, the group had to maneuver the rover to pick up tools and deliver them to “astronauts” in the field, which were actually GPS checkpoints. To get to the station, the rover had to travel over terrain made up of rock beds, meter drops and steep inclines.

In another challenge, the team used the rover to find a site of biological or geological significance and collect a sample. The sample was then analyzed both through the rover and back at the team’s base station with a number of sensors and experiments.

Servicing an astronaut’s habitat was another task. Brinker’s rover towed a wagon with fuel to a generator, opened the generator, poured the fuel, turned knobs, flipped a number of switches and verified the process over an LCD screen.

The team members were in the back of a U-Haul trailer, where they set up a computer with custom control software and camera feeds that they used to drive the rover.

“In all of these tasks, we have to control the rover remotely, rather than seeing the rover,” Brinker said.

In the final task, the team had to let the rover travel from one GPS coordinate to another without any help from the driver.

‘Today. Tomorrow. Forever.’

Brinker became involved with the Missouri S&T Mars Rover Design Team during her freshman year of college.

She saw that the club was looking for electrical and computer engineers, and Brinker was double majoring in both of those subjects. At first, she thought it would be a good way to learn more and to get some hands-on experience in her field. But she said it grew into much more.

“When I went to my first meeting, I saw an opportunity to get involved with something bigger and more exciting,” Brinker said. “I saw a way to advance my skills while working on a project with a group of ambitious and passionate engineers, but I also saw the chance to be a part of a community and to make a difference.”

When she joined, Brinker was one of the public relations and outreach sub-team members. Within a month, she was appointed to be the sub-team’s committee chair.

“I coordinated PR events, as well as outreach events, such as events where we taught students at local schools about STEM and robotics,” Brinker said.

She stayed in that position until her sophomore year, when she became involved in the science sub-team, which was responsible for developing the sensors and experiments used during the competition.

Brinker was elected to chief technology officer at the end of her sophomore year. In that position, she acted as project manager and systems engineer for the rover. She also led the technical branch team.

In the past year, she has been the science team leader and the development team leader, through which she helped new members.

According to Brinker, being on the team means more than just building a machine. The group’s vision statement is “Today. Tomorrow. Forever.”

To the team, “today” means building of the rover and everything in between getting to competition. “Tomorrow” reflects the skills developed by being on the team, skills that will one day help them become the best engineers, scientists, leaders and managers they can be.

“Forever” represents their commitment to giving back, inspiring the next generation of science, technology, engineering and math students, as well as educating the public on space technology.

“It’s this philosophy and the friendships I’ve made that have kept me on the team,” Brinker said.

A helpful high school education

While she was attending Highland High School, Brinker took four Project Lead the Way classes taught by Chris Durbin.

“The classes really helped me figure out that engineering is the correct path for me and helped me to even get a good idea of what kind of engineering I wanted to do,” Brinker said.

She said that in the second course, principles of engineering, her class got to work with Fischertechniks, a more advanced Lego that has sensors and motors, which can be wired up and programmed.

“It was working on projects with these in POE that spiked my interest in electrical and computer engineering,” Brinker said.

A bright future

Brinker is looking forward to starting her graduate school education at Missouri University of Science & Technology.

“I’m really excited about the research I will be doing for my master’s,” Brinker said. “The project will be developing miniature, passively coded microwave sensors that can be used for material characterization and structural health monitoring.”

In the future, Brinker hopes to have a career in the space technology field.

“I want to design instruments such as spectrometers, cameras and sensors that will go on spacecraft and help us learn more as we explore the final frontier,” Brinker said. “But I also want to help develop nondestructive testing techniques that will make space exploration safer and more feasible.”

She will also be spending the next summer at a NASA facility as part of a NASA Space Technology Research Fellowship.