RoboNav has been exploring many design options as they build the software, firmware, and mechanical foundations for their new competition, the University Rover Competition (URC). One such design decision the team has made is to use a drone to help simplify the autonomous portion of URC. The autonomous challenge is the hardest portion of URC, and it involves driving (or flying) through a series of gates set up in the Utah desert.
By using a drone to complete this portion of the competition, the RovoNav team can avoid terrain-related traversability challenges and reduce the weight of the rover. The mechanical team can simplify the rover’s design and sensor load, and instead focus on designing and manufacturing other complex structures such as the arm, end effector, chassis, and soil sampling subsystem. The software team chose a prefabricated drone (the VOXL m500) and is building the flight software using PX4 and ROS2.
To ensure a safe landing, the team will use a map interface to select and feed the drone “good” coordinates in the vicinity of the autonav gates. The gates progressively increase in traversability difficulty from the first to the last (eighth) gate, and the drone will take the unusual strategy of navigating from gate 8 to 1, essentially completing the course backwards. The software team plans to use this strategy to have the gates with the most treacherous surrounding terrain completed by the drone. Since the drone cannot complete the course on one battery charge after accounting for payload, the rover will then complete the course by moving through the remaining easy-to-access gates in the normal order, from gate 1 to wherever the drone stopped. In this unique and piecewise way, the team hopes to complete the course successfully and surpass other teams in the competition.