Out of this world

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On November 17, 2017

After days of competition in a barren desert, 36 teams of finalists, more than 500 students from seven countries, slowly made their way to the “Hab,” a deep space habitat at the Mars Desert Research Station, to find out who had won the University Rover Challenge.

Winners were announced in ascending order, and once the third-place and second-place teams were named, members of Missouri S&T’s Mars Rover Design Team broke into wild celebrations.

They already knew the score.

“We knew that we scored 52 on equipment servicing and 100 on autonomy and extreme retrieval, so when they announced the score for third and second place, you could see everyone’s faces light up as they did the math and realized that we scored more than second place, even without the final science scores,” says the team’s chief financial officer Téa Thomas. “As soon as they said our names, we screamed and cheered and a few of us even cried. We were standing next to some of the teams we had become friends with, and I think some of them were just as excited as we were. We’re the only American team to win in the last seven years, so all the other American teams were cheering for us.”

Conquering the God of War

Image taken from the front left hazard avoidance camera by NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover while exploring Mars’ Gale Crater.

The Mars Society sees the red planet as one of the next great frontiers in space exploration. It hosts the University Rover Challenge each year, inviting collegiate teams from around the world to showcase the potential next generation of planet surveyors and explorers.

The terrain of Mars is a never-ending series of craters. Its surface includes the largest volcano known in the universe, as well as the second-highest mountain and one of the largest craters in the solar system. It is impossible to mimic the terrain here on Earth, but the competition copies the look of Mars by hosting the event at the Mars Desert Research Station near Hanksville, Utah — a town with a total population of 200. The station itself is off the beaten path, located in an isolated desert surrounded by red rocks and clay.

“Hanksville is unlike anywhere else. There are a few small patches of grass, but for the most part, it’s all just red dust and sand,” says Thomas, a sophomore in business and management systems from Lee’s Summit, Mo. “The competition site is miles from any actual road and it just keeps going. There’s nothing but orange rocks for as far as you can see.”

To-do list

The University Rover Challenge is designed to demonstrate the fundamentals of remote robotic travel and task completion.

To qualify for the event, teams created a video presentation that explained the design and cost of their rover. Teams also had to submit a detailed final expense report. At the final event in Utah, all 36 qualifying teams attempted to complete four challenges:

  • An astronaut assistance task, which required teams to use the rover to collect lost tools left in the field and deliver them to multiple locations.
  • The equipment servicing challenge, which required rovers to repair a mock equipment system. Tasks included turning valves, pushing buttons and reading pressure gauges.
  • The sample return, which required the rover to collect soil samples at selected sites in the field and use onboard instrumentation to perform a basic scientific evaluation to determine geological significance or determine the likelihood of biological life.
  • The autonomous travel challenge, which required rovers to maneuver themselves through a variety of difficult terrains based on a given set of GPS coordinates. Obstacles included soft sand, rough stones, rock and boulder fields, vertical drops, and steep slopes.

This year’s competition introduced two new tasks: retrieval and delivery. The change didn’t faze the S&T team.

“Having two new tasks very well may have been a big advantage to us,” explains 2017–18 team president Cameron Shilko, a senior in mechanical engineering from Smithville, Mo. “The team had just selected a new rover platform to build on, which meant a complete redesign of all of our systems and a great time to make necessary changes for the new competition requirements.”

Every team had to prepare for the relatively unknown tasks, and the University Rover Challenge designers hoped the experimental course would expand the students’ rover ideas.

“The new autonomous traversal task introduced a new aspect to the competition; however, many teams proved to have impressive software teams that were well prepared,” says Kevin Sloan, director of the University Rover Challenge. “The unique outlier with each of these tasks, though, was Missouri S&T. They came prepared and received perfect scores in each new task.”

Plan first, finish first

The Mars Rover Design Team designed Gryphon for this year’s competition. The student-designed and -built rover was a meticulously planned vehicle. The team developed custom circuitry for the rover, machined the aluminum and carbon-fiber support structure, developed durable wheels for terrain mobility, and 3-D printed gears for its robotic arm.

“This year the team aimed to have, and had, an operating rover earlier in the design process than ever before,” says Shilko. “We created a detailed rover test plan including system verification, acceptance testing and task simulations in the months leading up to competition. All of this led to a very refined machine and an experienced crew to send to the University Rover Challenge.”

The Mars Rover Design Team had tasted victory after only five years of competitions. This year, the team earned a total score of 403.4 — nearly 70 points more than the second-place team.

“The team was confident, but not cocky going into the event,” says team advisor Melanie Mormile, associate provost for faculty affairs and a professor of biological sciences and geological sciences and engineering. “They knew they had a robust rover but also understood that the people in charge of the competition set out to truly challenge the teams. The team had great spirit and mood while competing. When issues or conflicts arose, they focused on problem-solving by taking everyone’s input and then sifted through the input to the most likely solution.”

So how did the team celebrate the world championship? By arriving back to Missouri S&T in the middle of the night, unloading the truck at the Kummer Student Design Center, eating some cake to revel in the victory, and starting to plan for next year.

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On November 17, 2017. Posted in Fall/Winter 2017, Features, In this issue