West Virginia Robotics Team Wins with Peplink

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How Unbreakable Cellular Bonding helped WVU’s Mars Rover maintain full control through the NASA competition.

“Our previous networking solution wasn’t good enough to guarantee mission success. We needed a solution that could handle the loss of one of the cellular connections and still function reliably.” -Eric Loy, Team Captain. West Virginia University Robotics.

When the Mountaineer Robotics Team at West Virginia University designed and fabricated a sophisticated new Mars Rover, they were excited to compete in the 2016 Revolution Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Exploration Robo-Ops competition at the Johnson Space Center (JSC) Rock Yard. But they needed a robust, redundant, and reliable network connection.

By equipping the 2016 Mountaineer Mars Rover (MMR-16) with the lightweight, rugged Pepwave Max HD2 router, complete with SpeedFusion technology, the Mountaineer Robotics team competed in a harsh environment without any network failures — and walked off with the second-place award.

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  • Goals: To be more competitive in NASA’s RASC-AL Robo-Ops competition with a new Mountaineer Mars Rover (MMR-16)
  • Solution: Deploy the Pepwave MAX HD2 as the communications backbone to meet stringent requirements for reliability, ruggedness, and a lightweight product since the rover’s overall weight determined their lineup position
  • Results: The MMR-16 operated without any loss of control, and won second place

Rocky Challenges

When the Mountaineer Robotics Team at WVU needed a reliable and robust connection for their 2016 Mountaineer Mars Rover, they searched hard for something that would work.First, they tried a pair of cellular routers from another brand, bridged over a Wi-Fi link. They positioned one of the routers at a stationary base station and affixed the other to the rover. This solution worked well—for a while. Then the rover lost its line-of-sight to the base station and became sluggish, due to decreased bandwidth and increased latency. The team realized they needed a more robust and reliable solution, especially one that could handle the loss of one of the cellular connections and still carry on functioning.

Space-Age Requirements

“We needed a rugged, lightweight router that we could count on,” said Eric Loy, Captain of the WVU Robotics Team.

Weight mattered. The order of the competition lineup is determined by the rover’s weight. A lighter rover gets a more favorable position in the lineup. The router also had to be rugged. The competition is held in a rocky environment that simulates the surface of Mars. All the components had to be sturdy and able to resist dust and moisture.

“We chose the Max HD2 Mini because it was lightweight, had a rugged metal case, and included a GPS, reducing our need for an extra component,” said Eric Loy.

Easy Installation

The team ordered the Pepwave Max HD2 Mini 4G LTE Bandwidth Bonding Router three months in advance so they’d have time to integrate the router into the rover. They 3D-printed a sturdy base for the HD2 Mini and affixed it to the MMR-16 so that the antennas had maximum clearance. The HD2 Mini acts as the rover’s backbone communication system. The system handles multiple live camera feeds that enables mission control to remotely survey the landscape and maneuver the rover from many miles away, simulating realistic NASA and rover operations on Mars. Two cellular connections act as the WAN, with multiple carrier networks (AT&T and Verizon) acting as protection against any single network failure. They also purchased a Balance 210 Dual-Wan Router so that they could take advantage of SpeedFusion Bandwidth Bonding.

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“We mounted the HD2 Mini on the Mars Rover and used the Balance 210 in mission control,” explained Eric Loy. “SpeedFusion Bonding allowed us to unplug one of the WAN connections from the router in order to simulate a network fault — without ever losing control over the rover. This gave us the best balance of speed and reliability.”

Once the routers were installed, the team configured them easily and they ran successful speed tests using the PepVPN Test and Analysis tool. During speed tests, they found that they were achieving a 61% increase in speed with SpeedFusion bonded AT&T and Verizon connections. A third party speed test tool (speedtest.net) reported their average download speeds were 27.3 Mbps and 11.1 Mbps for uploads, far superior to results from their previous setup.

Winning Results

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The WVU Mountaineer Mars Rover won second place at the 2016 NASA RASC-AL Robo-Ops competition hosted at the Johnson Space Center Rock Yard — with no network failures. The lightweight and rugged build of the Max HD2 Mini enabled the team to deploy the router in a challenging situation. They were able to develop network-related features for the rover and communicate with it as easily as if they were on a local network. And SpeedFusion Bandwidth Bonding enabled them to operate the rover without worrying about the usual network failures.

“The Peplink products made a big difference in the competition. The Max HD2 Mini was so good that next year we plan to use it again. Next time, we’ll extend the antennas by attaching them to a folding mast to give our rover even better cellular reception in a tough race”

-Eric Loy, Team Captain. West Virginia University Robotics.