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Preparing to Explore Mars: BYU Engineers Compete with Mars Rover

Published Date: 08/26/2019

A collaborative team of BYU Electrical and Mechanical Engineering students recently competed in the University Rover Challenge held at the Mars Desert Research Station just outside of Hanksville, Utah. This rural location has a sandy environment that closely parallels the climate, geography, and chemical makeup of Mars, making it an ideal spot to compete. The competition, hosted by the Mars Society from May 29-June 1, 2019, brought together 500 national and international students that formed 34 teams. Out of those teams, BYU took 10th place.

Placing in the competition is based on the rover’s ability to perform certain tasks. In the spirit of innovation, teams have to build their rover to complete four unique “missions.”

The first of these tasks is the Science Mission, in which the rover needs to locate and analyze items of biological interest. In an actual Mars-landing situation, astronomers would be eager to find objects that are living or once-living, which is why the rover needs to have this ability.

The second task, the Extreme Retrieval and Delivery Mission, challenges the rover’s ability to locate and deliver objects back to the team.

Skyler Van Orman, an Electrical Engineering student and member of BYU’s rover team, explained extreme retrieval in more detail. He said that the environment provides “rough terrain with inclines up to 45-60 degrees, sand and rocks. The rover has to be able to drive over it and be able to pick something up.”

The third challenge that teams are judged on is the Equipment Servicing Mission. This mission requires that the rover must be able to perform simple maneuvers such as tightening screws or replacing electronic boards, tasks that would prove beneficial in an actual Mars-landing.

The last challenge, the Autonomous Traversal Mission, tests the rover’s ability to move autonomously.

Van Orman said of the rover he and his teammates created, “[Our] rover will roll autonomously, so no one touches it. It’ll find tennis balls. We give it GPS coordinates, so it will go there and acknowledge that it found it. It tests basically how well your automatic code can avoid obstacles, go up hills, and things like that.”

Building and programming the rover to be able to complete these tasks can take extensive amounts of hours. In order to have the rover ready by the start of the competition, preparation began months prior to the event. The team officially started working in September 2018, but they had to submit a System Acceptance Review video in March 2018. This video report of the rover earned the team a place in the competition, which eventually turned into their rover receiving 10th place in the competition.

With all their preparation, overall the BYU team was happy with their finished product. For example, Van Orman shared that the chassis worked well in the challenge. He said, “Our chassis did awesome on inclines. There was this rock it had to climb that was close to a 45-degree angle and it went up it like nothing! It went through sand just fine. The chassis was excellent this year.”

Jacob Newman, another Electrical Engineering student and volunteer on the project, expressed that he is looking forward to the next competition in 2020. Considering his experience this year, he said, “I’m glad I was able to volunteer with the team and see their cooperation and teamwork together. It was cool seeing Mechanical Engineers and Electrical Engineers coming together to solve a problem. That was a really cool thing to be a part of.”