BYU students place 2nd in international Mars rover competition

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The BYU Rover overcomes rocky terrain on a patch of desert outside Hanksville, Utah. The Rover took over 2500 man hours to complete. (BYU)
The BYU Mars Rover overcomes rocky terrain on a patch of desert outside Hanksville, Utah. The student-built rover took over 2500 man hours to complete. (BYU)

A team of 16 BYU engineering students placed second in the University Rover Challenge for its design of a six-wheeled robotic Mars rover. The team defeated many campuses from countries around the world.

BYU has participated in this competition every year since 2007 but has never scored this high. Assistant professor of mechanical engineering and faculty coach Eric Homer couldn’t be more pleased with the latest results.

“The students made the rover perform as well as it possibly could,” he said. “I am extremely proud of them.”

Homer is excited with this year’s results but already has his sights on next year’s competition, thinking of ways the current design could be upgraded.

“We’ll be participating in the competition next year and will be focused on improving upon the old model and going for first place,” he said. “This year we’ll be working on ways to upgrade and improve upon the current models of the robotic arm on the rover.”

The competition, hosted by the Mars Society, is the culminating event of a project that took a combined 2,500 man hours for the students to complete. Countries including Bangladesh, Poland, Egypt and India were represented at the competition.

Each year the rover is constructed from scratch with a team of both mechanical and electrical BYU student engineering students. The goal is to design, assemble and test a Mars rover unit that could perform tests similar to what would be done on Mars by astronauts.

During the competition the rover was expected to perform four categories of graded tasks. The categories are the sample return task, the astronaut assistance task, the equipment servicing task and the terrain traversing task.

These tasks involved performing actions such as sampling soil and analyzing the geological significance of that soil and any biological implications of the soil makeup, guiding the rover through the rocky terrain and gathering and returning objects to a specified location.

The competition was held over multiple days, and each night the team would come together and look at how the rover had done that day as well as plan for the next day. Brian Monson was one of the mechanical engineering students who participated.

“Every night of the competition we would come together at about 10 at night, and we would discuss what we needed to fix and what our strategy would be for how to tackle the problems for the next day,” Monson said. “We would do this for about an hour and a half before we would go to bed at 11:30 at night.”

The team performed well and adapted to challenges during the competition. BYU electrical engineering student Stephen Carlson was the chief technical officer for the project and was responsible for the overall design of the rover’s electrical aspects. He said the competition went very well, but it was not without challenges.

“There were some malfunctions that we had to overcome when the rover stopped working, but we were able to handle it with military-like precision,” Carlson said. “We were able to handle those difficulties the same way NASA would in the field.”

The students really enjoyed seeing something they worked hard on function and succeed at a high level.

“I got to watch the rover work, and it was great to see the ideas that we took from the drawing board to be put into actual practice,” Monson said. “I would watch it in action and think, ‘Oh man! Those wheels! I designed those!'”

Building the rover required many hours of hard work and some personal adjusting to overcome. Carlson had to push the boundaries of what he thought comfortable in his role as chief technical officer.

“I am not that much of a shy engineer,” Carlson said. “But I am a shy leader. It was hard to delegate the work, but luckily there were others on the team who were able to fill the administrative role and made it work.”

Constructing the rover took lots of adjusting, tinkering and testing over many models and prototypes.

“We would test the rover and break it so that we could understand why it broke and how we could make it better,” Monson said. “My first idea for the tires on the rover was to put clothesline around the wheels for traction, and it worked well, so we looked for something more durable than clothesline and implemented it into the design of the rover.”

In designing and building one complete unit, the students had to work on bringing two groups of people together who didn’t necessarily think the same way.

“I had to meet deadlines and coordinate with a team,” Monson said. “I had to learn how to work with the electrical engineers, who think differently and solve problems differently than I do. I had to learn how to work with others to achieve common goals and create a quality product.”

To complete the task of designing a functioning unit the students were assigned to work on particular aspects of the rover. BYU electrical engineering major Sam Bury oversaw the programming and wiring of the arm controller. It was difficult learning how to bring individuals working on individual projects together and make them work as a whole.

“I think the hardest part was integrating all of the systems together,” Bury said. “In my role as the team organizer, I was able to see the big picture and help the team bring all of their ideas together. Individually all of the parts worked great, but together they wouldn’t always function properly. Some of the items we had difficulty with were the networking controls and the GPS function of the rover.”

This competition provided students with the opportunity to take what they had learned in class and see how engineering functions in the real world.

“Usually in class you’ll open books and solve specific problems,” Monson said. “You’ll do this so many times, and eventually you will just think that that is all that engineering is — just solving book problems. But that is not true. This project taught me that you won’t always have time to sit down, get out some paper and calculate the math to solve the problem at hand. Sometimes you’ll just have to implement an idea, see how it works and go from there.”