Each year, the Mars Society hosts the University Rover Challenge (URC) at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) near Hanksville, Utah. The objective: build a rover capable of working alongside humans on Mars, and build it better than anyone else.
URC’s winner is determined by the quality of its System Acceptance document and video submitted months before competition and by its performance in four distinct missions at MDRS in May. For more information on the specific competition rules not outlined below, as well as competition news and broader media, visit the URC website.
System Acceptance Review
Teams create a written document and supplemental video to demonstrate their preparedness for in-person competition. URC uses this submission to determine finalists who will be invited to participate in Hanksville, UT.
This milestone is widely considered to be a celebration of what teams have accomplished. Teams publish their videos, and individuals commonly make a playlist of all known videos. From here, teams can observe what other teams have done, and use their ideas as inspiration for what they do next.
The goal is to determine the absence or presence of life, either extinct or extant, for designated samples in the field. Teams develop a written science plan for their approach to the mission, and implement it through various on-rover components to determine correct answers remotely in the field. Following in-field data collection, teams prepare and present a presentation to the judges on the findings, with discussion following.
These tasks, in and out of the field, test the rover and team’s ability to remotely identify the martian surface.
Extreme Retrieval and Delivery Mission
Teams pick up and deliver objects in the field while traversing a wide variety of terrain up to 1km. These tasks vary per year, but have included moving hand tools like a hammer, providing supply containers like a toolbox to an astronaut, pulling a rope, or relocating a rock.
The difficulty of this mission is centered on the ability of the rover to identify, collect, and place correctly items in the field using various sight mechanisms, and traverse the terrain between locations using GPS.
Equipment Servicing Mission
Teams perform several dexterous operations on a mock-up equipment system. In recent years, this has involved performing various “startup” tasks for launching a “lander rocket”, including placing a cache container into a tight-fitting compartment in the lander, opening a latched door, tightening a hex screw, typing on a mechanical keyboard, and operating a joystick.
All these tasks are designed to test a rover’s ability to perform tight maneuvers with manipulation skill, but also stress sight systems in close quarters to the various panels of the lander.
Autonomous Navigation Mission
Teams autonomously traverse to posts or between gates in this staged mission across easy and moderately difficult terrain. For each “leg”, teams must identify one or two AR tags, comprised of black and white blocks, drive to them, and indicate to judges through a LED indicator.
This sequence of tasks challenges a team to identify and avoid challenging terrain, all without a operator at the wheel. Teams utilize sensor systems like LiDAR and software like OpenCV to meet this challenge.