IRIS sees increase in ECE students to help build robot for NASA mining competition
Daniel Dexter, ECE ILLINOIS
- The annual NASA Mining Competition pits students from various universities across the country as they compete to see which team can build the best autonomous robot to traverse and operate in the hostile Martian conditions.
- The club has gives students an opportunity to develop advanced skills early in their college careers with programs like EAGLE PCB, which is used for circuit design and creating schematics.
- Although the club started with many aerospace students, it has expanded to become more inclusive of students from other majors.
While some people dream of working for NASA one day, Illinois Robotics in Space (IRIS) gives students firsthand experience to build a robot that could end up on Mars.
IRIS, an interdisciplinary club, competes in the annual NASA Mining Competition, which will be May 18-21 at the Kennedy Space Center. The competition pits students from various universities across the country as they compete to see which team can build the best autonomous robot to traverse and operate in the hostile Martian conditions.
“It’s really interesting because it is a complex task, especially the notion of autonomy,” electrical team lead Raj Vinjamuri said. “So what we really do is use our engineering skills and intuition to break down the problem into a lot of smaller problems. The systems engineering aspect of IRIS is what makes us especially unique among any other technical team we’re aware of because of the depth that we use systems engineering, which is similar to the ways of Boeing or NASA.”
Although the club started with many aerospace students, it has expanded to become more inclusive of students from other majors. Vinjamuri, a senior in electrical engineering, joined IRIS during the fall semester and soon became the electrical team lead. He said he regrets not becoming involved with IRIS sooner because of the hands on experience it offers that will be invaluable to students once they enter the industry.
Freshman electrical engineering major Christina Choi said the club has given her an opportunity to develop advanced skills early in her college career with programs like EAGLE PCB, which is used for circuit design and creating schematics. The majority of the work is being done in the Open Lab in the ECE Building, which Choi believes is an optimal space for the work the team is doing.
“It’s so versatile,” Choi said. “One side is the working station where you can use the tools and parts, and on the other side you can have meetings. It’s a really great working space.”
Outside of the engineering aspect of IRIS, Choi is also the communications director and works to establish external connections and public relations for the organization. While she admits that a leadership position was somewhat intimidating, she enjoys that she able to use other skills that aren’t necessarily engineering related.
Byron Hopps is another freshman who joined the club in the fall semester. He quickly established himself as the electro-mechanics coordinator. For him, the most difficult part of building and designing the robot is to make sure the electrical, mechanical, and autonomous teams are all on the same page.
“I work in conjunction with the mechanical and autonomous people to make sure that everything is going to work together nicely,” Hopps said. “There are some pieces that are worked on by all three teams and problems tend to happen if everybody is not in line with the others.”
According to Vinjamuri, the team has improved its performance at the competition each year, placing third for its systems engineering paper last year. However, the team’s robot had a mechanical malfunction during the competition. He is optimistic that with all of the new perspectives, IRIS will be able to put it all together this year at the competition.
“IRIS hasn’t had too much of an electrical engineering presence, and that is something, as electrical team lead, I have been making an effort to increase,” Vinjamuri said. “We have seen our membership increase and a lot of students, freshmen and sophomores especially, that are really excited about what we are doing. We are hoping that this will be the year that we get all of our systems successful at the same time.”