BYU students participated in an invasion of Mars — or what seemed like Mars. Near Hanksville, a small town in southern Utah, students studying physics, engineering and other majors brought their constructed Mars rovers to the Mars Desert Research Station.
Rovers are remote-controlled robots designed to aid astronauts by roaming across extra-terrestrial terrain. Students from ten schools brought rovers to the desert of Hanksville to compete in the University Rover Challenge (URC) sponsored by The Mars Society.
At the URC competition, the rovers complete tasks like gathering samples, servicing equipment and bringing aid to a lost explorer.
With levers, cameras, electronics and switches, teams control their rovers from a tent, sheltered from the blazing heat and whipping winds. Prior to the competition, each team customizes their rover in look and functionality.
The students have a great opportunity to practice what they learn in the classroom when they construct their team’s rover and then compete in this event.
“It has been a truly fantastic experience,” said Neil Hinckley, a senior from Herriman, Utah, studying mechanical engineering. “I was able to be part of this team that made something, not just as an exercise for a class or a homework assignment, which is done every year, but to fulfill a set of requirements. That is something I wish every student had more of an opportunity to do!”
BYU’s team finished second to York University, in a very close competition. Even though they finished second, the Mars Society website said BYU’s was the only team who did not struggle with the Equipment Service Task, a section inspired by Mars-exploration rovers that struggled with dusty solar panels. For this task, each rover attempts to clean solar panels affixed to stationary equipment; BYU’s was the only team to implement a brush system similar to a car wash in their design.
“I think that the key is never giving up,” said Hinckley. “Eventually we got something that worked, simply because we refused to give up!”
Despite working together and planning ahead, unexpected problems arose throughout the competition that the team had to work through.
“Rarely do engineers and scientists work alone and often they must work with people outside of their area of expertise,” said Jim Schwab, an applied physics major from Roanoke, Texas. “Unexpected challenges were the order of the day when working on our rover. Very often one could pose a problem at a group meeting and get several solutions, and those with expertise in that area would help work out a solution.”
Although BYU’s team finished second, they were strong competitors at this year’s event, and will return to “Mars” next year with just as much zeal.
“The University Rover Challenge was a thrilling experience filled with many different lessons,” said Schwab. “The most important [lesson] was learning to work with people from different backgrounds. This brought a wealth of possibilities when solving problems. The process of collaboration is, arguably, the most important lesson I learned. Placing second in an international competition has reinvigorated my passion for science and engineering.”
—Melissa Oldham, Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology, and Alysa Hoskin, College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences