On Saturday, June 5, in the remote southeast Utah desert, a team of engineering students from Oregon State University emerged as the champion of the fourth annual University Rover Challenge (URC).
Competition events began on Friday morning, June 4, at two adjacent sites near the Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah. The "sample return mission" involved investigating sites that might have microbial life and bringing back a sample. At the second site, the "equipment servicing task" required rovers to flip switches, push buttons, and insert plugs into outlets.
Practice paid off for Oregon State, as its team had been practicing simulated tasks at home for the past several months, even going so far as to build their own mock-up panel for the servicing task. The team's rover successfully flipped six switches, pushed one button, and plugged in one cord. Poland's Magma Team and York University also managed to get through several switches and plugs on the servicing panel. Iowa State University's rover navigated successfully to the panel, but the electronics that controlled its robotic arm burned out.
Day two of the event focused on the "emergency rescue task," where teams were required to locate a distressed astronaut and deliver a supply packet. "We give them the last known coordinates of the astronaut, the general direction he was heading, and a maximum radius," said Andrew Duncan, a volunteer for the Mars Society and a judge for the URC. Although the teams have 40 minutes to complete the task, they only earn the full 100 points if they finish in 20 minutes or less. Once again, Oregon State out-performed the other teams, finishing in a record time of just under four minutes. York University suffered a setback when its rover flipped while climbing steep terrain on the course.
Oregon team members said frustration with their performance in last year's event motivated them to focus on working out the bugs in their systems. "We actually started designing this year's rover in the van on the way back home from last year's event," said team captain Jonathan Doltar, a mechanical engineering student.
The team took first place in two of the four task challenges, earning a total 315 points, which put them a full 100 points ahead of the second and third place teams, York University and Poland's Magma Team (Technical University of Bialystok and Nicolaus Copernicus University).
Other teams competing in the event were Brigham Young University, Iowa State University, University of Michigan, and University of Waterloo from Canada. Although 12 teams had registered for the event, funding and technical problems forced five teams to withdraw in the two weeks prior to the competition.
The URC has stringent rules in place to ensure that no team has an unfair advantage, especially in terms of funding and resources. First, there is a 50-kilogram weight limit for the rovers; second, teams can't spend more than $15,000 to build the rovers. The value of in-kind donations (e.g., parts and supplies) must be included in this limit. "These two rules keep the competition from being dominated by goliaths," said Kevin Sloan, director of the URC.
But regardless of financial resources, the time commitment for getting to the competition is significant -- York University team member Jordan Bailey says their team's captain took a reduced course load during the spring semester in order to lead the design and construction of the rover. "He was putting in 8-hour days regularly on the rover project -- some days he would sleep in a lawn chair in the room where the rover was being built," Bailey said. York's team placed second in this year's event and was the winner of the 2009 URC. "When you get here and see the rover actually working, it's worth all the effort -- even if you don't take first place," said Bailey.The dry desert heat took a toll on several teams' rovers. Both York University and Iowa State had problems with drivers over-heating, which cost them both time and points in competitions. "It's a problem a lot of teams are having right now," said an Oregon State team member on day two of the event. "You test your rover in a lab environment, but then you get out here and it's a lot different in the desert heat." Mid-day temperatures during the event hovered around 100° F. But Oregon had obviously learned this lesson from previous events -- they improvised a cooling system by fastening reflective mylar tape to black components on the rover to prevent absorption of heat from the sun.
Iowa State University designed and built its rover with treads rather than the typical wheels. "We did it for greater maneuverability and the ability to turn more easily," said Keegan Gartner, a mechanical engineering graduate student at Iowa State. But unfortunately, as the event progressed, the treads proved to be a source of problems. During the emergency rescue task, one of the treads jumped a track, which basically meant game over for Iowa State.
Poland's Magma Team, which took third place in the overall competition, plans to use its rover as an educational tool in its home country. Students at schools in Poland will be able to control the rover remotely via the internet, gaining hands-on experience with robotics and remote-controlled space exploration vehicles.
York University's Jordan Bailey says the idea of the URC competition is to look at problems that real rovers will face on Mars and figure out new solutions. "The hardware we use on these rovers is not space-rated -- everything is basically stuff you can buy off the shelf," he said. "But the solutions are the same, whether you use earth-based or space-based hardware. So if we figure out an innovative solution to a problem NASA is looking at, they can potentially use that -- but with million-dollar space hardware instead of $1,000 equipment."
Final results of the 2010 University Rover Challenge:
For information about the 2011 URC, stay tuned to the event's website.
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