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2010: A Mars Odyssey

Note: This article is hosted here for archival purposes only. It does not necessarily represent the values of the Iron Warrior or Waterloo Engineering Society in the present day.

Ever wonder what it’s like on Mars? It’s red, dry, dusty, desolate…and oddly enough, just like Utah. Between June 5 and 8 the Waterloo Rover Team had a chance to travel to the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in southern Utah to compete at the University Rover Challenge. MDRS is a world-class Mars analogue site located outside the bustling community of Hanksville (population: 200). After travelling more than 3500km by car over the span of two and a half days, the team rolled into the Hanskville Inn for some rest.

Thursday 1100 hrs – into the desert: The first day of the competition involved meeting the other teams, learning the path to MDRS, and reviewing the safety rules of the desert. Teams varied in size from 5 members to more than 20; Waterloo sent Tom Haylock (Syde), Pablo Molina (MME), Michael Leung (Syde), Mahdi Olfat (MME), and Alex Kuo (Science). Now in its 4th year, we are only the second Canadian team to enter the competition (York was the first) and the third international team. We followed the caravan of competitors down the highway and stopped at a small marker labeled “Cow Dung Road”; it was to be desert paths from here. The winding dirt path took us several kilometers from the highway into the middle of the desert. We finally arrived at MDRS, a place which can only be described as other worldly. We were treated to a tour of their facilities and then left to prepare for the competitions which would begin the next day.

Friday 500 hrs – competition day: We decided to perform a full systems test of the Rover three hours before our first event. After acquiring a communications link, our driver took the rover out. The competition is not autonomous and depends heavily on the video feeds transmitted back to the base station. Things looked good: the rover could handle well on the desert terrain, maintain a strong communications link, and was able to transmit location data. Suddenly, the Rover stopped dead and ceased to move again. A power board had failed with little time to spare before the first event. Unfortunately, the failure was difficult to diagnose and we were unable to compete in Friday’s events.

Event 1: Sample Return Task. Even without a functional rover, we could still participate in this life finding mission by delivering a presentation of our life detection techniques. We discussed the indicators for cyanobacteria and the inner workings of our spectrometer in order to gain points. Cyanobacteria are a type of algae that can grow in extreme environments. If any life were to exist on Mars, it is expected to take a form similar to cyanobacteria or other desert lichens present around MDRS.

Event 2: Equipment Servicing Task. This task was wholly dependent on a moving Rover and so we needed to forfeit all points for this task. Only two events were held for each team each day. Having passed the first two, we returned to repairing the Rover.

Saturday 500 hrs – second competition day: after spending the night debugging, repairing, and testing every circuit, the team was ready once again for a moonlit drive test. This time the chassis performed well and was ready to compete!

Event 3: Emergency Navigation Task. The goal of this event was to perform a search and rescue mission to find an astronaut in distress. The last known coordinate of the astronaut was provided to our navigation expert and he identified the area we should search. An emergency delivery package was secured by Velcro to the top of the Rover as our driver began to move the Rover into the field. After five minutes of searching, the vibration and heat were strong adversaries of the Rover and we faced a motherboard error. Although we had video connectivity, we could not direct the Rover to turn. Brief maintenance was performed and a second drive was attempted. Our time soon ran out and unfortunately, we did not save the astronaut. We ended within a reasonable distance and commensurate points were awarded.

Event 4: Site Survey Task. Seven flags were posted at varying heights and distances from the base station. Our goal was to perform calculations to determine the flags’ GPS locations without driving to them. Several known GPS coordinates were given on a map. Our driver moved the Rover to a suitable viewing location. High resolution photographs were taken of the site layout and the approximate locations were identified on our map. Combining our range finding algorithm with the estimated points on our map, we were able to identify the flag locations and altitudes. We had great success and received a perfect score for our expertise in identification.

The awards ceremony was held later that day at the MDRS. First place, Oregan State University (USA), second place, York University (Canada), and third, Technical University of Bialystok and Nicolaus Copernicus University (Poland). The evening was capped off with a BBQ and all of the teams went to their hotels for much needed rest. There were some amazing Rover designs and the competition certainly is a testament to the Engineering ethic. There were other teams at our hotel and we saw the fervor that each team put into their device to make sure everything was completely functional. Other teams had problems too. Some teams had mechanical failures and others lost software functionality. The nature of space design is one of challenge. It is difficult to predict the environmental parameters and what your drive characteristics will be like.

The four events were a great representation of the types of tasks that will need to be considered during the design of Mars missions. Mapping the uncharted lands and searching for evidence of life will be key activities driving our exploration of the Red Planet. The MDRS site in Utah proved to be a challenging environment to work within. The rocky and dusty terrain was incredibly rugged and the high temperatures in the desert were difficult to test in advance in Waterloo. As we bounced around over the desert hills, bolts would slowly loosen (even with loctite) and we were lucky that nothing fell off the chassis.

As a first entry to the competition, we call this trip a success! Despite some intermittent behaviours, we were able to always keep our communications and video links open, as well as receive other sensor data like the cardinal directions and GPS coordinates. Getting the chassis to a point where it was able to be driven from a distance was a large milestone for us. Operating a remote vehicle at up to 1.5km away presents some very interesting technical and human factors challenges.

Just like a manned mission to the planet Mars, this trip took more than 2 years. The Rover Team was founded in 2008 as a combined effort between the Waterloo Space Society and the UW Robotics Team. Now back on Earth, we have begun brainstorming our next generation Waterloo Rover. And Mars wants you. If you would like to get involved with our team, email us at waterloospacesociety@gmail.com to find out how you can help. On to Mars!

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