UB team designs autonomous vehicle for NASA’s Micro-G NExT competition

Group photo students around the UB Bull.

The Micro-G NEXT challenge team members decorated the UB bull outside the Student Union. From left are Mirka Arevalo, Sean Flynn, Jonah Bannon, Imon Tatar, Mark Ng, Ryan Hughes, Teresa Bompczyk, Tamaghan Maurya, Vladimir Tattybayev, Kevin Zheng, Liam Field and Joshua Duell.

By Nicole Capozziello

Published July 13, 2020

Interested in creating something that may one day be used in an actual NASA space mission?

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“This is the first time something like the SAVER-Challenge 1 has been featured in NASA's Micro-G NExT competition. Typically, challenges are on a much smaller scale and do not heavily depend on the interdisciplinary nature that an autonomous unmanned surface vehicle requires. So, this is unprecedented in Micro-G's history!"
Teresa Bompczyk, research lead for the Micro-G NExT team and computational physics major
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

A group of students in UB’s chapter of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) have been doing just that as part of NASA’s Micro-G Neutral Buoyancy Experiment Design Team (Micro-G NExT) Competition. 

“Our team was one of only 20 selected to go on to Phase II of the competition,” says Teresa Bompczyk, research lead for the Micro-G NExT team and a junior computational physics major. “We are delighted and proud to have realized this achievement.” 

The annual Micro-G NExT competition calls on undergraduate students from universities around the country to design, build and test a tool or device that addresses an authentic, current space exploration challenge.

This year, the competition featured five unique challenges focused around different aspects of the Artemis mission, using Orion as the spacecraft. NASA aims to launch the Artemis Program by 2024 and, as a part of it, land a woman on the moon for the first time.

The UB team chose to create an autonomous vehicle called SAVER–which stands for Surface Autonomous Vehicle for Emergency Rescue–that could aid in the search and rescue of crew members in the unlikely event of an unplanned egress, such as a launch abort or contingency landing, in the water.

“This is the first time something like the SAVER-Challenge 1 has been featured in NASA's Micro-G NExT competition,” says Bompczyk. “Typically, challenges are on a much smaller scale and do not heavily depend on the interdisciplinary nature that an autonomous unmanned surface vehicle requires. So, this is unprecedented in Micro-G's history! The team is beyond grateful to have had this opportunity.” 

While over 50 teams from across the country submitted proposals for the competition, only four teams participated in the SAVER challenge. Of these, the UB team is the only one still participating; unfortunately, the other teams dropped out of the final competition due to COVID-related issues and setbacks.

“Our Micro-G NExT team advancing to Phase II of NASA's 2020 competition illustrates why UB's aerospace engineering program continues to be considered one of the top programs in the nation,” says Kemper Lewis, Dean of SEAS and Moog Professor of Innovation in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. “We are all extremely proud of our students, for whom this is just one of many achievements. They are thought leaders in space exploration, helping to meet the current and future challenges of NASA, our nation and our world.” 

The UB team includes 20 students who are actively participating in the challenge. In addition to Bompczyk, the leadership includes Vladimir Tattybayev, captain, computer science ‘20; Liam Field, co-captain, aerospace engineering ‘20; Mirka Arevalo, safety and outreach lead, mechanical and aerospace engineering '21; Sean Flynn, electronics lead, civil engineering '21; and Joshua Duell, structures lead, mechanical and aerospace engineering '22.

Paul Schifferle, an adjunct professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and vice president- flight research at Calspan Corporation, serves as the team’s faculty advisor with further help from Ethan Blanton and Jennifer Winikus, both faculty in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering.

They began by brainstorming potential designs, and then moved on to a research phase to investigate and support their design’s feasibility. Next, the team wrote an in-depth, 38-page proposal outlining their project's parts. Finally, team members collaborated to bring their design to life, using various engineering software and computer systems to achieve the requirements of the challenge, and their specific design’s objectives.

The team’s design concept, called AMSAR: Autonomous Maritime Search and Rescue, is unique in that it incorporates multiple sensing systems. 

“While NASA requirements state that the vehicle must autonomously move to the downed astronaut's beacon location, we also decided to use other software-reliant subsystems,” says Bompczyk. “For example, AMSAR uses a Pi (portable lightweight) camera implemented with Tensor Flow software to lock onto what it determines to be the astronaut. This information is then fed back to the motor-controlling software, allowing AMSAR to change its course.”

To achieve these complex systems working together, the team relied on students from across disciplines, including undergraduate computer science students like Tattybayev, Tamaghan Maurya and Imon Tatar, as well as mentorship from graduate student Mark Ng.

The competition also emphasizes the importance of outreach and education in exciting the next generation about space travel. This year, the team partnered with UB Sustainability to bring engineering activities, such as making wind-powered cars with balloons, straws, and wheels and designing a circuit powered by potatoes, to elementary and middle school students around Buffalo. The team put on five activities, all led by student volunteers. 

This year’s competition deadlines were modified in response to the COVID-19 crisis. In lieu of the in-person competition usually held in May, NASA will be hosting a virtual competition in September. Teams will be submitting their proof of concept video, showing a working prototype, and a formal document outlining the design’s systems and procedures for testing, on July 13. The SEAS Engineering Partnership Program provided funding for 3-D printing.

Though the year has not gone as planned, the experience has still been a greatly rewarding one for team members.

"This club has allowed me to directly practice technical and design knowledge, as well as work with like-minded people with similar passions, and meet life-long friends," says Tattybayev, who, along with the team’s co-captain Liam Field, graduated in May but remains dedicated to the competition.

Before September, the team will continue testing each sub-system and fine-tuning their overall design before finally 3-D printing it and shipping it to the NASA Johnson Space Center Neutral Buoyancy Lab. There, the students’ months of effort will come to fruition when professional divers test their design in a simulated microgravity environment.

“Knowing that we may contribute to NASA's future missions in some way along with directly impacting our community through outreach activities has been a blessing,” says Bompczyk. 

UB students have been taking part in the Micro-G NExT competition for over 15 years. While the club has boasted multiple accepted proposals and invitations to the Johnson Space Center's Neutral Buoyancy Lab over the years, this is the first time since 2016 that their proposal was accepted.

Students of all majors can participate in Micro-G NExT. Follow them on Instagram,  contact the team through UB AIAA's Slack Workspace or email sunyubmicrog@gmail.com