With vast expanses of red, eroded desert and futuristic rovers scaling the terrain, Hanksville, Utah looked a lot more like Mars than planet Earth.
Rovers are vehicles driven by remote control over extraterrestrial terrain. Students from eight different universities, including BYU, showed what their rovers were capable of at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, a location that is often used as a Mars simulation site — even Disney’s upcoming 2012 film John Carter of Mars was partially filmed there. Teams from Poland, Canada, and the United States gathered to compete in the University Rover Challenge (URC) near Hanksville, a town that typically has an estimated population of 250.
Teams design their rovers to work in the field next to explorers, gathering samples, working electronics and even bringing rescue aid to a lost explorer via coordinates. Rovers are scored based on their ability to perform tasks and meet criteria, and the points from these tasks were added together to form the team’s overall score.
Though BYU did not place first overall, they were 0.6 points away (on a scale of 100) from having the highest score in the Sample Return Task category.
“The rover and the team did very well,” said Dr. David Allred, leader of BYU’s rover team. “It was the most competitive year yet.”
According to the Mars Society website, this year’s collection of rovers was the most impressive in the five years of the University Rover Challenge.
“The level of sophistication shown by these teams was overwhelming,” URC Director Kevin Sloan said. “These teams poured themselves into their rover projects over the past year, and it clearly showed. The level of competition was taken to an entirely new level this year.”
Though the competition was high, students enjoyed meeting and discussing their rovers with the other participants. All shared in the challenging experience of creating a rover capable of returning samples, flipping switches, plugging in electronics and following coordinates. Students control the rover using sensors and cameras, which they operate from a remote tent.
The design and functionality of the rover depend on the team’s electrical and computer construction skills. This synergy stimulates an environment conducive to learning and discovery for the student competitors.
“My time spent with the rover was a fantastic learning experience culminating in this latest competition,” said Mark Davis, who served as BYU’s lead mechanical engineer. “I learned a lot about team management and how to get things done on a schedule. . . . I enjoyed being part of such a challenging project.”
Davis, who was one of two seniors on the team, completed his second year participating in URC. Because the BYU participants were young this year, most will return next year, experienced and recalling fond memories of the 2011 event.
“The competition was professional, but still very fun and informative,” Rachel Otte, geology major and URC participant said. “You learn about different situations, climates and . . . research. Putting those three things into a 3D model and acting like a detective is a blast.”