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Building a Martian: the University Rover Challenge

One day soon robots will rule the world. Well, maybe. For now, they rule Mars as research and colonization efforts push forward, and for a few days this June they will rule the Mars Desert Research Station in Hanksville, Utah at the University Rover Challenge (URC).

Launched in 2006, the URC has hosted competitions since 2007 and boasts contestants from around the globe, including the United States, Canada, India, Bangladesh, Poland, and Egypt.  Each year, contestants are given point scores based on how quickly they complete a series of tasks and how closely each task conforms to parameters outlined by the competition guidelines.  This year, teams must complete a terrain traverse, a simulated equipment servicing, an astronaut assist, and the retrieval and measurement of a non-contaminated soil sample.

Collaboration and Challenges

Byron Cragg, Science Team Lead for the Titan Rover Team out of California State University, Fullerton, says it’s been an uphill battle. “We’ve had to design the systems we are using to control our rover, retrieve our data, and keep our data organized from the ground up.  We’ve also needed to make our rover robust in case a battery or a motor fails during the competition.” 

It is no easy feat to build a rover for the Utah desert, let alone send instrumentation to Mars. This is why it has taken a multi-disciplinary team to build the physical components, robotic arm, telecommunications, and scientific cache on Titan Rover.  Cragg says his team consists of scientists, computer engineers, electrical engineers, mechanical engineers, geologists, chemists, and biologists all working together.

A prototype of the Titan Rover

A prototype image of the Titan Rover.

Titan Rover Features

The CSU rover is outfitted with sophisticated features like Leap Motion infrared sensors that allow Titan Rover’s robotic arm to be controlled by a human counterpart moving their arm in free space. When the user moves their arm and hand position, the arm on Titan Rover is given a signal from the command center to move accordingly.

Cragg is responsible for the 3D printed science cache that uses a 3” auger and a capacitance sensor to measure a soil sample’s volumetric water content, temperature, and bulk electrical conductivity. During the competition, the team will also be required to construct a stratigraphic column from HD images transmitted by the rover, as well as measure soil temperature at a depth of 10cm.

“It comes down to designing the pieces to communicate and work together to perform the tasks correctly,” Cragg says about the challenges ahead. “It’s one thing to build the rover,” he adds, “but it’s another to complete the requirements.”

While ambitions of a colonized Mars are on the horizon and research pushes on, like the Titan Rover project, progress will require collaboration and teamwork. In the meantime, good luck to all the Earthlings who will be competing in the Utah desert this June.

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