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A team of mechanical engineering seniors from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette recently built an autonomous machine to compete in a design and course navigation contest in Nevada's Black Rock Desert.

Joey Doring, Tyler Dupuis, Aaron James and Matthew Smith put their creation, Red Rover, to the test.

The rover, which resembles a coffee can with wide rubber tires, was launched via rocket over the desert and ejected at 12,000 feet. The goal was to have Red Rover land, then use GPS navigation to arrive at a target location. That plan, however, didn't pan out.

Red Rover's parachute deployed. But sometime before it hit the ground, its wheels popped off.

Dr. Joshua Vaughan, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at UL Lafayette and the team's advisor, said the rover's fate was typical.

"Most of the machines don't survive ejection and landing," he explained. More than 30 teams, including one from Georgia Tech, also competed in the contest.

The event was held by ARLISS, a consortium that includes high schools and colleges from around the world. ARLISS stands for A Rocket Launch for International Student Satellites.

The ARLISS Project is a collaborative effort among students and faculty at educational institutions and high-power rocketry enthusiasts in Northern California, to build, launch, test and recover prototype satellites.

The Association of Experimental Rocketry of the Pacific, a nonprofit organization, provides the small rockets, while competing teams' entry fees cover the cost of rocket fuel.

"The idea is to build an autonomous machine that can survive being ejected, then quickly navigate to the target," Vaughan explained. Originally, the UL Lafayette students were designing a small helicopter. "They didn't have time enough to execute that design, so they built the rover, instead."

Even though Red Rover was sidelined, the experience of designing, building and launching the machine was valuable.

"This contest is a good example of real-life challenges in design and execution. You have to make compromises. For example, how big do you want the parachute to be? The smaller the chute, the faster the landing, but it will also mean harder impact," said Vaughan.

The project, which cost about $20,000, including the cost of materials, an entry fee and travel, was paid for by the Louisiana Space Consortium, an organization that promotes space-related research.

Vaughan said he hopes to make the ARLISS competition a focal point for students who take a required senior design course.

The timing of the annual contest, which is held in September, isn't ideal for U.S. schools, he said.

"There is a lot of participation from Japanese schools, in part, because they are not in session in September — it's the equivalent of their summer break. If we can begin projects sooner, we'll have a better chance of success."

Shown, from left, are UL Lafayette seniors Joey Doring, Aaron James, and Matthew Smith. The fourth person, whose face is blocked by the rocket that is being moved, is Dick Jackson, a member of the Association of Experimental Rocketry of the Pacific. Jackson provided the rocket used to launch the students’ “Red Rover” in a recent competition.