The Challenge

MRover's primary goal is to win the University Rover Challenge (URC). Student teams from all over the world compete in the URC to design and build the best rover for assisting future astronauts. The URC is hosted by The Mars Society, the largest advocacy group for the exploration and settlement of Mars, and it takes place at the Mars Research Station in the Utah Desert. The competition consists of four events:

  • Extreme Retrieval and Delivery - Traveling over tough terrain
  • Equipment Servicing - Manipulating various pieces of equipment with the robotic arm
  • Science Cache - Acquiring soil from a chosen site and evaluating it for signs of life
  • Autonomous Navigation - Driving to GPS coordinates and searching for markers nearby.
The teams must be able to maneuver their rovers through the unpredictable, rocky terrain using only the cameras on their rovers, simulating the experience of driving a rover on Mars. In light of recent interest in autonomy, the URC implemented an autonomous navigation task in 2017, adding an additional software challenge to the competition.

Mechanical Team

Robotic Arm

With six degrees of freedom, our robotic arm can operate switches, turn valves, and type on a keyboard. It is also designed to pick up equipment to assist astronauts. We are experimenting with innovative hand designs using 3D printing and silicone molding.

Soil Acquisition

This subsystem must be able to drill several inches into the dry Utah soil and acquire a soil sample for further testing. It features a percussion system for breaking up the ground and an actuated opening in the drill for storing soil.

Chassis and Mounts

Our rovers feature a carbon fiber chassis with a modular mounting system, allowing us to optimize our subsystem configuration for each task. This subteam is also responsible for creating the camera mast and various mounts for the other cameras on our rover.

Mobility

The mobility subteam is reponsible for designing the drive and suspension subsystems. We recently transitioned from a six-wheeled "rocker-bogie" design to a new four-wheeled design that allows for faster travel. Our most recent design features four independent shock absorbers and a differential bar.

Software Team

Autonomous Navigation

Our autonomous navigation subteam develops several layers of code that allow the robot to navigate to GPS coordinates, plot paths around obstacles, and search for markers set out by the URC. They also develop simulators to rapidly test their software.

Computer Vision

A key part of the autonomous navigation task is being able to identify markers and obstacles and doing so from as far away as possible. Our computer vision subteam deals with this task, using a stereoscopic camera in addition to the rover’s other cameras.

Teleoperated Control

Devising a control scheme of a rover with so many moving parts is no easy task. Teleoperated Control develops the control schemes for each rover subsystem as well as the GUI for the base station.

Hardware Interface

Our hardware interface subteam writes drivers and other low-level code to make sure all the features of our many pieces of hardware can be accessed in software.

Electrical Team

Logic Box

Our logic box contains all of our central computing equipment, including a Jetson TX2 for the central computing, Raspberry Pi Zeros for computer vision, and custom PCBs for edge computing.

Power Box

Our power box houses our power distribution panel and all our motor controllers. It must be cooled extensively to prevent problems in the desert heat.

Custom PCB Design

When off-the-shelf circuits won't cut it, we use Autodesk Eagle to design our own circuit boards. We then have our circuits printed so we can assemble the boards and install them on the rover.

Communications

No event of the URC is possible without a strong wireless connection between the rover and the base station. The team members dealing with communications must work closely with the software team.

Science Team

Offboard Tests

The offboard tests are conducted in a laboratory setting and are used to find biomolecules, such as active carbon and carbohydrates. Prior to the competition, the Science Team must develop and practice procedures for testing the rover's soil sample.

Onboard Tests

The science team is responsible for selecting the onboard tests, which are probes mounted on the rover that characterize different aspects of the environment, such as soil moisture levels and temperature.

Site Selection

Using satellite imagery and surveys of the area, the science team creates maps of different soil properties. These maps are used to select the site form which the rover will take its soil sample.

Report and Presentation

The URC stipulates that we send a report demonstrating our knowledge of Mars prior to the competition and present our findings from the tests we perform at the competition. The science team is responsible for these two tasks as well.