The University Rover Challenge (URC) by the Mars Society is a robotics competition for university level students that challenges teams to design and build a rover that would be of use to early explorers on Mars. The competition is held annually at the Mars Desert Research Station, outside Hanksville, Utah in the United States. The site was selected by the Mars Society for its geographic similarity to Mars: In addition to being a largely barren desert area, the soil in the area has a chemical composition similar to Martian soil. The competition has also expanded internationally to include the European Rover Challenge, Canadian International Rover Challenge, and the Indian Rover Challenge as part of the Rover Challenge Series.
The aim of the University Rover Challenge is to encourage students to develop skills in robotics, improve the state-of-the-art in rovers, and work in multi-disciplinary teams with collaboration between scientists and engineers. The competition was launched in 2006 with competitions held annually every summer since 2007.
Specific scenario details change each year as teams master given tasks and to encourage flexibility in designs and improve the capabilities of the rovers each year. Rovers are required to perform tele-operated or autonomous tasks that would assist astronauts in the field. Tele-operated tasks are performed from control stations with no direct view of the rover, only what can be determined via video and data links from the rover or sensors deployed by the rover. It is assumed the operators are also on Mars so there is no time-delay in communications. For 2019 tasks include:
Teams must submit a written report and a short video describing and demonstrating the design and capabilities of the rover to perform the required tasks, scientific plan, and team management.
"The goal is to conduct in-situ analysis with the rover, including life detection testing of samples"
Teams must investigate multiple sites of biological interest, using instruments and methods of their choice, where they must conduct analysis of samples entirely on board the rover. The goal of the task is to determine the presence or absence of life, either extinct or extant, at designated sites. After the 20–30 minutes of investigation time, teams must also prepare a short presentation to give to the judges on-site, which presents their results, analysis, and conclusions. Analysis is expected to be relevant to the setting on Earth while demonstrating an understanding of how these observations would translate to a Martian setting.
"rovers shall be required to pick up and deliver objects in the field, and deliver assistance to astronauts"
Rovers must pick up and deliver objects in the field, such as screwdrivers, hammers, toolboxes, rocks, etc. Rovers are required to traverse a wide variety of terrain—anything from soft sandy areas, to rock and boulder fields, to vertical drops. Teams are given approximate GPS coordinates for each pickup and delivery location, and potentially specific instructions for particular objects. Scoring is based on teams' ability to pick up and deliver objects to their correct locations.
"Rovers shall be required to perform several dexterous operations on a mock-up equipment system."
Possible operations outlined in the rules for 2019 include:
2017 required rovers to tow a wagon carrying a fuel canister to a generator, fill up the fuel tank, swap the regulator on gas cylinders, and start the generator by pressing a button. Previous equipment tasks have included pumping air into an inflatable habitat, and cleaning solar panels.
"Rovers shall be required to autonomously traverse between markers in this staged mission across moderately difficult terrain."
Here, autonomous means without teleoperation—that is, without operators from the base station giving commands or user input. The rover must do all its decision-making on board. However, teleoperated scouting is allowed in the earlier stages.
The markers in this task are tennis balls and approximate GPS coordinates given to teams. As the stages get more difficult, the GPS coordinates will become increasingly vague and there will be more obstacles between the tennis balls, requiring obstacle avoidance and autonomous route finding. In addition, teleoperated scouting is allowed in the earlier stages, but not in the later ones.
A panel of judges conducts the judging, and this panel changes from year to year. Some effort is made to have a diversity of experience on the judging team, and past judges have included persons with professional experience as: systems engineers, biologists, roboticists, industrial designers, scientists and professors of varied fields. Judges are volunteers.
Teams raise the money for the rovers themselves, through their university and/or outside sponsors. The competition itself is funded in part by the Mars Society, Protocase Inc, (a custom parts manufacturer, which offers teams credit and discounts for all parts manufactured at Protocase), Honeybee Robotics, and Microsoft.
The idea behind the URC's creation is that the kinds of rovers teams are building would assist astronauts in the field, controlled remotely by another astronaut. This imagined use case drives the competition's emphasis on teleoperation and ability to perform tasks that a human might need to. (Such as equipment servicing and retrieval and delivery)
In its first year, only 4 teams competed: University of Nevada Reno, Brigham Young University, Penn State University, and University of California Los Angeles. There were only 2 tasks, a Science Task, and a task to deploy a mock radio repeater in the field. URC spokesperson Kevin Sloan says they were unsure what to expect, but were "blown way by the quality". University of Nevada Reno won that year, winning a $5000 cash prize, which was reduced to $1000 in subsequent years.
Since its inception in 2006, with 4 US teams, the competition has grown substantially, with 95 teams from 12 countries in 2018, and a total of 35 rovers selected to compete, their teams totaling more than 500 students.
The tasks have also undergone significant changes over the years, evolving from the 2 simple tasks of the first year to the 4 robust tasks of 2019, and continuing to get more challenging every year. Detailed information about years 2007 - 2009 is unavailable, but by 2010 there were 4 tasks: Sample Return, Site Survey, Equipment Servicing, and Emergency Navigation. In its 2010 incarnation, sample return involved choosing a sample to bring back with the rover, then doing analysis on it at the base and presenting to the judges on its scientific significance. Site survey involved analysis of a site from potentially far away. Equipment servicing most notably required teams to plug in a 3-prong plug into an outlet, and emergency navigation was a timed challenge in which rovers were to locate astronauts as fast as possible. In addition to these tasks teams scored points on a presentation they gave to judges on the design of their rover.
The following two years saw tweaks in the content of tasks to make them increasingly challenging, but the spirit of each task remained the same. For example, in 2012, the emergency navigation task was designed such that in order to reach some of the astronauts rovers would need to pass into areas where they would lose communication with their operators and thus need to operate autonomously for a time.
In 2013 the Site Survey task was replaced with Terrain Traversing, which tested rovers capability of navigating through difficult terrain. 2016 introduced a formal down-selection process, including a CDR (Critical Design Review) which took the place of the Presentation task, and a semi-finals round of competition. The next year, 2017, replaced Astronaut Assistance with Extreme Retrieval and Delivery (a mix of astronaut assistance and terrain traversing), Sample Return with Science Cache, and Terrain Traversing with Autonomous Traversal, an entirely new challenge which explicitly required teams to implement autonomous behavior on their rovers.
Finally, 2018 and 2019 have seen this task structure preserved, with increases in difficulty and complexity. Notably, the 2019 Science task requires detection of life aboard the rover, whereas in 2018 teams could bring back samples to conduct tests at the base.
The number and diversity of teams has also grown significantly over the competition's lifespan. In 2018, 95 teams representing 10 different countries registered, 36 of which were selected to compete. Teams from the US generally make up the majority, but teams from Canada, Poland, and in more recent years, India, are also strongly represented. Poland in particular, fielding their first team in 2009, has been particularly competitive. A Polish team from Czestochowa University of Technology won the 2018 competition, making 6 consecutive years Poland has been represented on the podium.
Some teams have been competed for many years in a row. Notably the team from Brigham Young University is the only team to have participated in every competition from 2006 to 2018, consistently placing in the top 5.
|Teams Registered||Teams Competed||Countries Represented|
Top Scores by Year:
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