Student Group Profile: SPEAR

Designing and building robotics to support space missions.

Andrew Lyle - 21 September 2018

"Having students from geology, biology, engineering, business… it's been great. There are a lot of techniques, methods, and information that you don't have access to or completely understand until someone walks you through these things. You aren't really aware of them; but other students from those programs are. I think it's absolutely crucial to have people from everywhere."

Noel Gore, Geophysics student and
leader of SPEAR's science team

The Space Exploration Alberta Robotics (SPEAR) team is a University of Alberta student group designing and building robotics to support space missions. Formed in 2017 with just five members, SPEAR has grown rapidly to a team of over 50 students from all over campus, including the Faculty of Science, Faculty of Engineering, and the School of Business.

The team's flagship project is a rover, a remote-control vehicle with a variety of tools designed to support colony operations on Mars. In 2018, the SPEAR team is representing the University of Alberta for the first time in the Canadian International Rover Challenge (CIRC), a new competition that brings universities from around the world to test their technical skills and teamwork as they deploy their rovers in Drumheller, Alberta.

Red rover, red rover

The SPEAR rover has been designed and constructed to navigate the difficult hills, rocks, and gaps of the competition area-selected for its similarity to the harsh environments the rover would face on Mars. In addition to overcoming the terrain, rovers are tasked with resource extraction, servicing field equipment, and carrying out a search and rescue mission.

Taking on these varied tasks requires students to consider their designs carefully, and competing student groups need specialized teams in everything from software to mechanical engineering, and even finance to get the project funded. With a maximum budget of $20,000, the rover design challenges teams to build reliable and rugged robots while also keeping costs down.

Supporting a colony on Mars

The SPEAR team had a critical challenge for any future Mars mission in the CIRC competition; determining the viability of a colony site. In the prospecting task, teams were provided with aerial imagery featuring several possible colony sites and tasked with evaluating terrain photographs to pick the site with the highest potential for a viable home. They then deployed their rover, driving to site and retrieving a soil sample for analysis in the lab; where the science team takes over.

A variety of tests are necessary to determine viability of a potential colony site. The science team looked for the presence of organic compounds that indicate viable sites for food growth, as well as toxic ones like arsenic or cesium that would complicate or prevent settlement in the area. With only three hours to carry out their tests and write a report, the science team had its work cut out for it at CIRC; but it's a challenge they, along with the rest of SPEAR, were ready to tackle head-on. The science team obtained a mark of 96% on their task, and the SPEAR team placed 7th overall in their first-ever competition, matched up against 18 university teams from around the world.

But their mission doesn't stop there. SPEAR is involved in community outreach, educating elementary and junior high school students on space and robotics. As SPEAR moves forward, they'll be making use of the Student Innovation Centre for meetings to keep their teams coordinated and are looking to expand the number of competitions they participate in as they continue to grow their team.