The #next team rover from Bialystok University of Technology in Poland heads for a gate on the terrain traversing task.

Students challenged to develop future Mars rovers

The University Rover Challenge (URC) invites student teams from around the world to design and build the next generation of robotic Mars rovers.

The team from Rzeszow University of Technology in Poland certainly lived up to its name in the 2015 URC, held at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in southern Utah. The ‘Legendary Rover Team’ was crowned the winner in the contest that invites teams of students to design and build the next generation of robotic Mars rovers, which could one day support astronauts tasked with exploring the planet’s surface.

This year a record 44 teams from eight countries entered, with the final field comprising 23.

“Every year we are amazed at the impressive technology all of the teams are able to field,” says Kevin Sloan, Director of URC, which is organised by The Mars Society.

Challenging conditions

The Legendary Rover Team scored an impressive 460 points out of a possible 500 in the three-day field competition, where the teams had to deal with extreme temperatures, high winds, dust and a rugged terrain. BYU Mars Rover from Brigham Young University in the US earned second place with 371 points while Project Scorpio from Wroclaw University of Technology, also from Poland, came third with 354 points.

The rovers have to complete four tasks and both Legendary and BYU got off to a good start, scoring 90 points in the terrain traversing task. Teams are warned to prepare for ‘any ground conditions’ and during this task the guidelines explain that the rover could encounter soft sandy areas, rough stony areas, rock and boulder fields as well as vertical drops potentially in excess of 0.5m and steep slopes in excess of 60 degrees. Other tasks include equipment servicing and astronaut assistance in which the rover has to collect multiple objects left in the field and deploy them to specific locations.

A perfect score!

It was in the latter two tasks that Legendary pulled ahead of the rest and a perfect score of 100 in the soil sample return task sealed the victory. As well as reliability and consistency, what often sets the top teams apart from the others is the implementation of their design, as well as how they react in the face of adversity.

“In the rare instance when one of the top rovers experiences a problem, the teams are calm, yet quick to act in methodically resolving the issue,” says Sloan. “And of course, custom wheels and rock-solid communications systems go a long way towards a team's success as well.”

Soft skills tested

While the field test is the main event, for the first time this year the organisers implemented another stage due to the competition’s rising popularity. Competitors had to go through a team proposal process as well as a critical design review and only those who passed these were able to progress to the field competition in MDRS.

“This was the first year that we implemented a competitive down-selection process leading up to the URC finals and the teams definitely rose to the challenge,” comments Sloan. “Even for the critical design review milestone in mid-March, the judges were amazed to see how many teams had working systems and were already undergoing testing. In the field during the finals, more teams than usual really seemed to be in contention for the podium after turning in solid performances. This really seems to be in response to teams being more prepared and rising to the increased level in competition.”

Robotic rover design advice

Aspiring rover teams can check out the advice section under ‘resources’ on the URC website in which judges and staff offer advice on areas such as design philosophy, testing and systems engineering. It tells teams to remember the three Rs of ‘reliability, ruggedness and robustness’ and advises them to keep the design simple based on the engineering axiom of ‘the simpler a design is, the more likely it will work’.

Despite the competition, there is a great camaraderie when it comes to the field event, highlighted by a series of impromptu races during the final celebrations when some of the team members are no doubt already thinking about next year’s designs. Last year’s defending winners from Poland’s Bialystok University of Technology had to be content with fourth place, even though they were awarded a perfect score in the equipment servicing task.

Are you up for the challenge?

Sloan explains that Poland has become something of a ‘hub’ for URC success, being home to the last three champions. He adds that in nine years of the competition, it is the only European country to field any rovers at URC, throwing down a challenge to the others.

“With next year marking the tenth URC, it just might be the year for UK universities to show off their talent!”

To find out more about URC, visit http://urc.marssociety.org.

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