Current Projects

Almost all vehicles on Earth use round wheels to get where they need to go. This is because round wheels provide smooth motion on surfaces such as city streets and highways. However, for rocky or sandy terrain, such as what might be found on Mars or the Moon, round wheels may not be the best option. A wheel with a varying radius or a series of protrusions might help an extraterrestrial vehicle drive more efficiently. This project is geared towards analyzing the kinematics and dynamic forces acting on wheels as they traverse sandy or rocky terrain, and optimizing the wheel design to best travel over these surfaces.

Subproject A – Wheel Testing Apparatus

The most common way of measuring speed in vehicles is based on finding the angular velocity of the wheel. However, this assumes that the wheel is driving smoothly over the ground without any kind of slippage. This way of measuring speed does not work as well for remotely operated extraterrestrial vehicles, as their wheels are likely to slip on sandy or rocky surfaces. Additionally, without sight of the vehicle, there is often no way to tell if slippage is happening. This project has developed a testing apparatus to run a rotating wheel model across a test terrain and measure resultant forces in three axes, as well as torque about the wheel’s axis of rotation. Programming is in process for an intuitive interface capable of running the apparatus and collecting force and torque data. The eventual goal is to determine a relationship between jog speed, wheel angular velocity, and slippage for multiple surfaces.

Subproject B – Interactive High School Wheel Design Activity

Outreach to younger students is incredibly important to help foster an interest in engineering and space technology. The STARLab recognizes this and is currently working on a project that can engage high-school students with space-oriented research and design. Students will be given a selection of wheel cross-sections and attachments and time to construct the wheel that they think will be the most effective. Then, each design will be tested with a vehicle prototype from the lab to see which is best able to navigate a series of different terrains.

In a world of increasing automation, drones and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are at the forefront. The STARLab has many drone-related projects for applications in many fields, including agriculture and environmental science. These sub-projects are related to design, programming, and use cases for drones.

Subproject A – Light Sensor Integration

Autonomous navigation is essential for any aerial vehicle to be truly unmanned. This project focuses on designing and integrating a light sensor into an existing drone model. This will enable it to recognize when it has flown into a poorly illuminated area, such as a cloud of smoke, and be able to chart a path out.

Subproject B – Oil Spill Radar Integration

Oil spills are a serious environmental problem. At times, they can be difficult to detect, and even harder to mitigate. This project is geared toward providing a method of detecting and analyzing the chemical content of oil spills and the smoke that results from burning them. A radar antenna is being used to detect an oil spill, at which point the drone will descend and collect a sample. Additionally, the drone will be able to fly into an smoke cloud from burning oil and onboard sensors will determine its chemical composition, as well as providing a spatial and temporal map of the smoke.

Subproject C – Drone Swarm Communication

Though individual drones are great, a group of drones, or a swarm, can cover a much greater area in less time. However, some method of communication between drones in a swarm is necessary to ensure that they do not collide or overwrite each other’s work. For example, if a swarm of drones was used to apply pesticides to a field, they would have to exchange position data to ensure that they covered the entire field rather than passed over the same area multiple times. This project will devise a method of communication with hardware that can be carried onboard a drone. Currently being investigated is the use of a small RF antenna and Arduino board to send and receive data.

Subproject D – Customizable Drone Design

Currently, most of the drones in the STARLab are commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products. These are both high-quality and useful but require extensive interfacing for each project, and there is little potential to use the same drone for multiple applications. This project is focused on designing and constructing a mostly or entirely custom drone for use in future drone projects. This drone will be more tailored to the needs of the lab and will also be more customizable than the COTS products, allowing it to be used more effectively for multiple different applications, possibly at once.

After the completion of the Iris project, the STARLab has taken on two new CubeSat engineering projects. These, like Iris, are geared toward providing students with an opportunity to design, build, and demonstrate space technology. Both of these projects are currently focused on defining and decomposing requirements.

Subproject A – ArcticSat Mission

ArcticSat is a 3U CubeSat that will carry as its payload a large deployable radar antenna. The systems engineering approach and satellite bus design will borrow heavily from the success of the Iris project, but with a different payload and mission. Aiming for a polar, sun-synchronous orbit, ArcticSat’s mission is to scan areas of northern Canada with its antenna to determine the amount of area covered by sea ice. This may not only help determine the effects of climate change in Canada’s Arctic regions, but also provide timely information about ice safety conditions to local Indigenous and Inuit communities. The ArcticSat project is in collaboration with Dr. Dustin Isleifson and Dr. Dorthe Dahl-Jensen of the University of Manitoba, and Dr. John Yackel of the University of Calgary, as well as the community of Chesterfield Inlet, Nunavut. Some returning collaborators from the Iris project include Magellan Aerospace and the Interlake School Division. ArcticSat is part of the Canadian Space Agency’s CubeSats Initiative in Canada for STEM (CUBICS) program.

Subproject B – LI Bus Design

The “Little Innovator” (LI) satellite bus development project is carried out with Defense Research and Development Canada. Again, many subsystems such as power, command and data handling, and communications will build off of Iris designs. However, LI is a 6U double-wide CubeSat, which is larger than any of the STARLab’s previous projects. Additionally, there will be thrusters on board to provide some element of orbital control, which were not present in any other CubeSats designed here. As such, the structure and attitude control and determination subsystems will require extensive design work.

With increasing amount of drone design and optimization projects in the works, the STARLab requires more and larger facilities for testing and operation. Planning the layout of these facilities and setting up equipment is one of the necessary steps to take before operations can begin. These subprojects focus on the design and setup of two separate facilities for drone flights.

Subproject A – Drone Dome Facility Design

“Drone Dome” is a planned facility for drone flight operations. It would be built at the University of Manitoba SmartPark. Currently, the facility layout is being determined, with plans to include plenty of space for drone flights, some sandy or rocky test tracks for rovers, and many Vicon cameras for data collection. Also included would be some infrastructure such as bridges and power lines in order to test drone flights through urban areas around obstacles. Drone dome is being designed with provisions for mobility in that it could slide back and forth on rails to accommodate plants in the fields where it would be situated, and allow for exploration into precision agriculture applications with drones. Once completed, the facility would combine many disciplines across the engineering and agriculture sectors, as well as some social sciences.

Subproject B – Drone Zone Motion Tracking Setup

“Drone Zone”, the STARLab’s drone testing facility located near the Winnipeg airport, has been allocated 30 Vicon cameras for motion tracking. These cameras must be strategically placed throughout the facility to ensure that all possible drone flight paths or angles can be tracked and no data can be missed. Determining optimal placement for all of these cameras, as well as ensuring that each location permits power connections and data analysis, must be completed before the facility is ready for use.