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The topography of Mars has everything from lava-flattened plains to cratered highlands. It has volcanoes and mountains but no oceans. Its temperature ranges from −140 °C (−220 °F) during the polar winters to highs of up to 20° C (68° F) in summers. In short, it’s a perfect place for robotic exploration.
Some of the requirements, though, still require human control. Teleoperated robots are a major component of space exploration programs. These robots are designed to take the place of human explorers; reducing mission costs and risks. However, these robots require a human to direct them to “interesting” features. To promote advancement of robots for space exploration, the Mars Society founded the University Rover Challenge, a competition that tasks teams with designing, building, and operating a robotic system in an analog Mars mission.
This year’s event was held May 28-30 at Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) northwest of Hanksville, Utah. The stark area has geologic, biological and environmental features that approximate what might be encountered on Mars. The competition was won by York University (Toronto). Other competitors were runner-up Brigham Young University (Provo, Utah), the University of Nevada (Reno, Nevada), 2008 winner Oregon State University (Corvalis, Oregon), Georgia Tech University (Atlanta, Georgia), Warsaw University of Technology (Warsaw, Poland) and UCLA (Los Angeles, Calif.).
“The competition evolved from the first year where it was a basic build, remotely operated system that can deploy a payload,” explains Andrew Boggeri President of the Robotics Club at UCLA. “This year, you have to do a lot of tasks with mapping. The requirements for camera resolution have steadily gone up. The team is like an astronaut in a module performing remote science investigations using the robot.”
The competing teams must design, build and operate a Mars Rover-like system in a series of simulated Mars mission tasks: