Mankind has always had a fascination with space, and as Mars 2020 approaches, Polk County is playing an ever-increasing role in the high-tech aerospace industry.

Some of the county’s involvement stems from Florida Polytechnic University, where a 14-member team is working with the Florida Space Institute on a capstone project to build a Mars rover.

“Florida Poly is unique in that we offer truly multidisciplinary projects, and a project as complex as a planetary rover requires collaboration across many STEM fields,” said Dr. Matt Bohm, associate professor of mechanical engineering and the university’s capstone design coordinator.

Florida Poly, the state’s only public university dedicated to science, technology, engineering and math, joined the project after another university failed to complete the project because it had only one discipline involved.

Bohm said picking up where the other university left off provides both challenges and opportunities.

The Project

“A bulk of the components and materials had already been selected, purchased and partly manufactured. The project is being presented to students as an Apollo 13-style mission, where they have to make use of a ‘pile’ of existing components to build a device to carry out specific missions, much like how the Apollo 13 crew had to retrofit CO2 scrubbers using only what they had on board.”

Mike Conroy, project manager at the Florida Space Institute, said the

Model of a Lunar rover

is working with Kennedy Space Center and students through the NASA Florida Space Grant Consortium to develop technology for rovers and to develop educational and outreach tools that NASA and FSI can use.

Bohm said the rover Florida Poly is building will serve as a concept platform for future rovers, which typically have several functions, such as gathering sediment or drilling.

“Our rover will have an adaptable slot for different scientific instruments to be used, depending on the planet and the mission. The real rover may end up looking similar but would be built out of lightweight materials that are also strong and durable, such as titanium and/or carbon fiber.”

Student Involvement

Conroy said the Florida Poly students are sharp, understanding of the engineering process, and are working with the Kennedy Space Center to better understand their needs and know to ask questions when they need clarification.

“The system they are developing is complex. When complete, it will enable research efforts and development in the areas of system autonomy, surface operations, construction and resource utilization for the moon and mars,” he said.

Blake Bryant of Lakeland, who’s majoring in Computer Engineering with a concentration in Machine Intelligence, was thrilled to have an opportunity to work closely with NASA.

“I absolutely love space, as soon as I heard that NASA was going to be a part of this particular capstone project, I immediately wanted a role,” Bryant said. “NASA has always had such an important role in my life, from the moon landings to incredible satellites. I feel NASA has always accomplished so much and will always strive to better mankind as a whole. I would love to make even a small impact and help in any way I possibly can.”

Bryant said the project requires a lot of hard work, and it has its ups and downs. “I appreciate all the help and guidance that NASA has done for this project. [It] is honestly a fantastic learning experience.”

Brandyn Langston, who’s majoring in Mechanical Engineering with a Nanotechnology concentration, said watching the growth of the Mars rover is quite interesting.

“It has given us work experience with actual field engineers. The engineers are helpful as they have worked on other rovers before,” said Langston.

Winter Haven resident Purcell Anderson, who is majoring in Mechanical Engineering Advanced Topics, said he’s always been interested in robotics.

“The opportunity to design and build a rover is the perfect chance to get experience working my dream job,” he said. “Working directly with NASA is a huge motivation to work even harder and learn as much as I can so that one day, I will be the person that aspiring engineers look to for guidance.”

Although the focus is on Mars now, Anderson said he thinks we will go further. “I believe that as long as humans are on Earth, our curiosity will continue pushing us further and deeper into space.”

Polk County Advantage

And with Florida Poly and other aerospace interests contributing, Polk County is poised to play a part in that.

“We do see Polk County emerging as a player in the aerospace industry,” Bohm said. “We now have Draken International, we have Sun n’ Fun and the Aerospace Center for Excellence (at Lakeland Linder International Airport), and recently within the Mechanical Engineering Program at Florida Poly, we have created a new Aerospace Engineering concentration. The Space Coast is currently in our backyard and expanding; in a few years it seems likely that Polk County will be more front yard with respect to the Space Coast.”