by Leslie Meredith, TechNewsDaily Senior Writer
Date: 03 June 2013 Time: 06:33 PM ET
Hyperion team makes final adjustments to rover before its record-breaking run on the terrain task.
CREDIT: Elizabeth Furbush
"Out of 500 possible points, they scored 493 — the highest-ever score at URC!" said Kevin Sloane, director of the challenge. Another Polish team, Scorpio 3 from the Wroclaw University of Technology, took second place, with 401 points. Brigham Young University placed third, with 350 points.
Now in its seventh year, the competition draws students from around the world. Teams came from Canada, India, the United States and Poland with their rovers designed to serve future human inhabitants of the Red Planet. The Mars Society is an international organization dedicated to promoting human settlement on Mars. It runs four Mars simulation sites, including the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in the Canyonlands of Utah. [See video of Mars Rover Challenge]
The Hyperion team attributed its success to having a small group that had worked closely together over the past three years. "Less people, less trouble," team captain Piotr Ciura, who was also a member of the 2011 winning URC team, said in his team's presentation to the judges. The six men built their rover in only two months and arrived several days early to test it on-site. [See also: The Rocky Road to Building the Next Mars Rover ]
For most teams, the toughest challenge was simply getting their rovers to move. "Driving over bumpy dirt roads just to get out to the MDRS can damage parts. One loose wire can mean the entire system fails," said Chuck McMurray, the Mars Society's deputy education director.
After the first day of the three-day competition, most teams had repairs to make. Many stayed up all night working along the narrow walkways in front of their motel-room doors. The defending champions from York University in Toronto had brought their MakerBot 3D printer. It hummed along in a corner of the bathroom for hours making replacement parts for the rover's robotic arm.
Many teams used 3D-printed parts, and judge Anne Andersen, a biologist from Utah State University, said that 3D printing will become as important an invention to the world as the transistor.
Each rover had four timed tasks to tackle in the desert and around the Mars Desert Research Site: servicing equipment, assisting astronauts, collecting samples and navigating a rough-terrain obstacle course.
"On Mars, it will be a lot easier to send a robot out to fix equipment or deliver supplies than sending out another astronaut," Sloane said. And because rovers on Mars would likely be controlled by those back at a base station, the same restriction was placed on the teams who set up their command centers in trailers out of view of the competition field.
The rovers looked similar — knee-high vehicles with articulated robotic arms, specialized suspension systems for navigating rocky terrain, cameras to provide a video feed, and a telecommunications system to communicate with the command center. Each team added its own selection of scientific instruments and other accessories to accomplish the tasks.
The equipment-servicing task demanded the most precision. After a 25-minute setup period, teams sent their rovers out to a PVC box designed to represent a solar panel . McMurray used a flour sifter to cover the panel with dirt.
After flipping a series of light switches — a no-brainer for a human, but difficult for a robot — the rovers were repositioned to use their arms with an attached device to clean the panel. Oregon State's rover used pieces of a Swiffer duster and a pair of ice scrapers for the job, while Hyperion blew the dirt away with a high-powered fan. Scorpio 3 used a rotating brush that worked well until it fell off — the direction of the spin also unscrewed the brush.