Robotics competition sees lunar rover compete against world’s best

Claire Halliday
Claire Halliday
Members of the UOW Rover Team are ready for this year's Australian Rover Challenge (ARCh) robotics competition.

The Australian Rover Challenge (ARCh) began on Wednesday, 20 March and, for the first time, a student team from the University of Wollongong (UOW) is putting its skills to the test in the prestigious robotics competition.

The ARCh is an annual event that invites university students from around the world to custom-build semi-autonomous rovers that compete across a lunar mission, in a simulated lunar environment.

Fourteen students from the UOW Rover Team will participate in the 2024 ARCh in Adelaide for five days until Sunday 24 March, competing against teams from Poland, India and Bangladesh, as well as 10 other teams from around Australia.

The competition aligns with the increasing interest in lunar exploration and the development of technologies that may be crucial for future lunar missions.

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UOW undergraduate student Connor Kellalea is the UOW Rover chassis team lead and has been instrumental in bringing the team together through his involvement in the student-run Mechatronics Engineering Society, where he is the current treasurer.

The mechatronics and finance student says the team have spent the last three months refining and building their entry to make the top 10 teams invited to compete in the ARCh. The team is currently sitting in ninth position.

“It is a huge time commitment. We worked on it the entirety of the summer holidays. We were in the labs on the first week of the year, just building and modelling it all up,” Mr Kellalea says.

“It was tough.”

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Adapting to compete on simulated lunar surface

The start of the engineering process, he says, is “to figure out what the problem is, research it, try to come up with your own solution, then adapt it and iterate over time until you get the final thing that can compete on a simulated lunar surface”.

The competition aims to inspire the next generation of space engineers to learn-by-doing through a hands-on simulated mission to the Moon and to display Australian student talent and capability in space activities.

In the UOW Rover Team’s first year entering the competition, they’ve achieved success in both the Critical Design Review and Systems Acceptance Review phases, demonstrating to the judges they have a viable rover design to compete in the ARCh.

The team have formed smaller specialised units to tackle the competition, with a chassis, electrical, software and arm team displaying their skills and undertaking a range of tasks, including navigation, resource exploration, construction and mapping.

“We put the rover on a platform and then drive it around, pushing buttons with the arms, pulling levers and hooking up to fuel connectors,” says Mr Kellalea.

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“In the second task, teams must move rocks out of the way and erect pavers for the rover to drive over, emulating if we were around the main camp site on the moon. Instead of having the dust kick up, the pavers provide dust mitigation.”

From local beach to universal ambitions

In the lead-up to this year’s competition – hosted by the University of Adelaide – the team has been busy with test missions at their local Towradgi Beach.

For Georgi Coddington, UOW Mechatronics Society’s Vice President of Communications, working on the Rover Challenge has been the perfect opportunity to align her passion for the space industry with her studies in mechatronic engineering and mathematics.

Her focus on finding sponsorship and financing for the project to get the team to Adelaide, saw two sponsors and some subject matter experts secured to assist their ambitious mission.

Networking connections help fuel potential

With aspirations to study a master’s in aerospace engineering after she graduates, Ms Coddington is in a unique position, as she works in the space industry as a Deputy Director of one of the Australian Youth Aerospace Association programs.

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““In some ways, securing sponsors has been really difficult because we haven’t done it before, however there are a lot more replies when you have an in with the industry,” Ms Coddington says.

“As the club grows a bit more, we will have the opportunity to participate in a lot of competitions and grow our connections.”

The ongoing support from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Sciences has opened many doors for the team, particularly through access to the UOW Makerspace and student workshop.

Dr Joseph Polden, Research Fellow from Facility for Intelligent Fabrication and the School of Mechanical, Materials, Mechatronic and Biomedical Engineering, said the team have come together quickly to address some interesting space engineering problems.

“The students are handling everything – from organising weekly progress meetings to tackling all the technical aspects of the rover’s design,” Dr Polden says.

“This society is in a brand-new iteration, and they have nailed down these processes in their first go. Their self-sufficiency, efficiency and technical achievement are seriously impressive.”

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Claire Halliday has an extensive career as a full-time writer - across book publishing, copywriting, podcasting and feature journalism - for more than 25 years. She lives in Melbourne with children, two border collies and a grumpy Burmese cat. Contact: claire.halliday[at]