Look out for the future, because you never know what it might bring…
Question #86935 posted on 06/09/2016 10:38 p.m.

Dear Frère Rubik,

You mentioned you have just prepared for a mission to Mars. Did you participate in this year's University Rover Competition near Hanksville? If yes, awesome! I participated on BYU's team the first and 2nd years the URC was held and have avidly followed the BYU team each year since then. My real question: how did our team do this year? I did see the rankings but I am curious for details. Also, the competing teams seem much more sophisticated than when the URC began. What do you think the BYU team needs to do to become a contender for 1st place again?

If this is not what you meant by mentioning Mars, what did you mean?

-Fellow mars-stronaut


Dear Mark Watney,

I thought I was going to be selfish with all of my Mars references. I threw a few of them into various answers, but for anonymity's sake, I had absolutely no inclination to actually explain what I meant by them. 

But then you came along and got it exactly right, and I was so excited to find that someone else (particularly a Board reader) knew what URC was that I've now decided to throw caution to the winds and just blab about this year's competition and what happened.

For everyone reading that doesn't know, URC stands for the University Rover Challenge, an international science and engineering competition that takes place every year at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) outside of Hanksville, Utah. Why did the Mars Society decide to place a Mars research station outside of Hanksville? Well, frankly, because it really looks like Mars down there:



In brief, the URC is a competition in which universities from all over the world (this year we had people from Canada, Egypt, Bangladesh, India, South Korea, and Poland, to name a few) form teams to build robots that can perform the same or similar functions to the rovers we've already sent to mars, like Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity. Traditionally, the competition has been broken down into four main events:

Equipment Servicing, in which the rover must be able to perform such tasks as flipping switches, turning knobs, towing cargo loads, and screwing/unscrewing hoses on an equipment panel,

Terrain Traversal, in which the rover must be able to navigate varied terrain similar to Mars, such as steep cliffs, abrupt drops, and rocky fields (URC posted a highlight reel of BYU's terrain traversal run from last year here),

Astronaut Assist, in which the rover must be able to pick up tools accidentally dropped in the field by supposed astronauts and deliver them to designated locations, and

Science, in which the rover must be able to document interesting sites with multiple cameras, investigate said sites with on-board science equipment, and retrieve and store a sample of dirt from the sites to be analyzed by scientists later. Teams also have to create a presentation of their findings and defend them in a discussion with judges at a later time.

This year, so many teams entered the competition that the URC judges implemented another event, the Semi-Finals. In the Semi-Finals, teams have three attempts to run a 5-minute obstacle course that incorporates elements of each of the four main tasks. Teams who did well in the Semi-Finals were allowed to advance to the Ares Finals, the "real" finals where teams would have a shot at winning the entire challenge. Teams that did less well were relegated to the Phobos Finals, a set of challenges that were like the Ares Finals, but less intensive. The Phobos Finals had a winner, too, but in that sense it was sort of like being called the competition's tallest midget. 

The URC has been going on for 10 years now, and like Mars-stronaut mentioned, BYU has been in it from the beginning. I think this mostly has to do with the involvement of Dr. David Allred from the Physics department here. I don't know if he's a member of the Mars Society, but he's definitely heavily involved in the URC. All of the judges know him, and he helped out with lots of the logistics of this year's competition. 

In the ten years since BYU has been involved in URC, we've done pretty well. We've taken 2nd a number of times, and we've been in the top five teams even more. How did we fare this year?

Well, before we get into that, it's time to introduce someone very important. Board readership, meet Hal:


Hal is BYU's faithful little URC rover (that "little" is ironic, because he's usually one of the biggest rovers at URC. He's almost certainly the tallest). Why is he named Hal? Well, in 2001: A Space Odyssey, there's an evil computer named HAL 9000 that famously refuses to open the space station doors for an astronaut, Dave, with the line "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that." Our Hal is not evil, but over the years as we've tried to get him to do things, he has told Dr. Allred (also named Dave) "I'm sorry, I'm afraid I can't do that" many times. So, the name seemed fitting, and it also makes him a lot cuter, I think.

Now, without further ado, here's a timeline of how last week's events went:

Tuesday, May 31st

We suit up in our official Project Pioneer (our team name for this year) shirts and take Hal up to the rock quarry in Provo Canyon for a final field test before driving down to Hanksville. There's a bit more pressure than usual this time, though, as Fox 13 News and cameramen from BYU meet us there to film the proceedings. Fortunately, the test went swimmingly; Hal climbed up a rock hill that seemed a lot more challenging than anything we'd be facing in Hanksville, and he did an excellent job of picking up tools and delivering them to Dr. Allred in front of the cameras. We end the day feeling confident about how we'll do at the competition on Thursday. (You can watch the story that Fox News ran here).

Wednesday, June 1st

Nothing particular to report here; we just packed Hal up and drove down to Hanksville. We set up a base camp at the hotel, ran a few last-minute tests, and held a meeting to decide whom would be in charge of which tasks.

Thursday, June 2nd

We rolled Hal out to the MDRS around 11 for our Semi-Final. Our first run started off well; we were making good time and nailed the science question that was posted to the equipment board. However, we took the next obstacle (a small ramp ending in a drop of about one and a half feet) too quickly, and when Hal hit the ground all of his motors stopped working. We were able to diagnose the problem (a blown-out fuse and a disconnected power cable), but it cost us our second run and all of the prep time in between. For our third run, we decided to skip the science and equipment servicing portions of the event altogether. We took the obstacles more slowly, and were able to make it to the end and deliver a couple of tools before the time ran out. Later that night, we found out that we'd qualified for the Ares finals, taking the 8th seed. We were happy, but also a bit spooked about how close we had come to missing our chance to compete for the top prize.

Friday, June 3rd

The day held two events: Equipment Servicing and Terrain Traversal. Hal's arm malfunctioned as soon as the Equipment Servicing task began, which was worrying because it's pretty crucial to the task overall. Fortunately, our operator was able to work around the malfunction and still perform a good number of tasks, earning us 45 out of 100 points for the event. 

We went in to Terrain Traversal feeling good; our drive system was pretty reliable, and we'd had the most practice with this event beforehand. Hal made it through the "rock garden" portion of the course alright, but shortly after his middle-left wheel stopped working. That made reaching the remaining gates tricky, but not impossible, and we were able to get him through a gate on the side of a hill that we hadn't been able to manage last year:


The next gate stood at the top of a steep ridge, with gullies on either side. Again, the left wheel problem made things seem a bit harder, but not impossible. Hal started off the ridge well, attacking it right up the center:


As he continued, he started veering to the left,


...but the driver was able to course correct and get him back in the middle.


This game of veering and course-correction happened a few times, and Hal started getting closer and closer to the edge with each correction. After one of these cycles, it looked like he was finally in the clear...


...but then another course-correction aimed him downhill and sent him crashing into the gully below.


Poor little guy. 

Amazingly, all of Hal's systems still functioned; his wheels would still turn when the drivers told them to. Our time ran out, and we carried Hal back to his spot in the truck. Despite our unlucky fall, we still managed to get 49 out of 100 points for the task overall.

The mood was a bit somber when we got back to home base. We all took a break to rest and get out of the sun, then started a marathon of repairs and practicing to get Hal ready for the remaining events the next day. Some of us got about five hours of sleep that night, others got around one. Some people didn't sleep at all.

Saturday, June 4th

We woke up bright and early to make it to our 7:00 AM setup time for the Science task. All things considered, we did fairly well; Hal was able to drive out, get temperature and humidity readings for the air and soil at the site, take a couple of pictures, and successfully retrieve and store a soil sample. We were supposed to return a panoramic photo from where we took our sample, and we took said photo, but unfortunately one of the coders had accidentally commented out the code that saved the panorama to the picture, so we lost it. 

Later in the day, we performed our science analysis of the dirt and finished up getting our presentation ready for the judges. Dr. Allred had reviewed it, and felt confident that we could get full points for it. In the end, we were just aiming to do better than last year. Last year's team was able to collect the sample and readings just fine, but did not really prepare for the presentation. They presented for about five minutes, and then were chewed out by the science judges for about 25. This year's presentation definitely had more information; however, one of the presenters made a fatal mistake in mixing up nucleic acids and amino acids. It seemed like a minor detail, and yet one of the judges grilled him on it for about 10 minutes. It was kind of hard to watch. In any case, we ended up with 60 out of 100 points for Science, which ended up being our highest competition score (there was also a pre-competition event where we had to present our rover and its capabilities; we got an 88 out of 100 for that).

Our final task was Astronaut Assist, and we felt confident going in to that one as well; it was our second-most practiced event after Terrain Traversal. However, during our 20 minutes of setup, something went wrong with the rover. I'm not exactly sure what it was, since I wasn't assigned to setup, but I think there was some lingering problem from the crash the day before that had gone undetected. In trying to fix it, the team used up all of the setup time and half of our 30 minutes of competition time. We got Hal out there, but we were desperately short on time. We got out to the tools, but we had a couple of misfires in trying to put them into the chutes we'd designed to hold them. Eventually, after getting one tool into a chute, we were just about out of time, so we made a break for the delivery spot. Somehow, all of us spectating managed to turn our heads at the same time, and when we looked back, Hal had fallen over again:


We stood around, dumbfounded, as the time ran out, then we picked our little guy back up and drove him back to base in order to patch him up and rest. Astronaut Assist ended up being our worst event; we scored 20 out of 100. We spent the rest of the day kicking back in one way or another; some of us went to Capitol Reef, some went to Lake Powell with Hal, and a few of us (myself included) just decided to stay at the hotel and catch up on sleep for a bit. At 6, we went back to the MDRS for a barbecue and a chance to mingle with the other teams and their rovers, followed by the award ceremony. I took the opportunity to take some more photos of the surrounding landscape:



(Don't those Canadiens look heroic?)

All in all, we took 11th in the Ares finals. The top prize went to Legendary, a team from Poland that won last year's competition (and possibly the competition the year before as well; I can't remember). Going into URC, we saw them as our main competitors, but in the end they left us in the dust.

What went wrong? Well, the crash on Terrain Traversal certainly didn't help. Even so, once we got to the competition there was a sense that we were perhaps not as prepared as we thought we were before. One team member hypothesized that Hal was more capable than he'd ever been this year, but less reliable; we'd spent more time adding new features rather than making sure that said features would work consistently when we wanted them to. 

If there's any silver lining to all of this, it's this: before the competition had even really started, Dr. Allred was talking to one of the URC officials. Apparently, the Mars Society is looking to expand the program at the MDRS, building new buildings, getting new equipment, and opening it up for students to spend four-month shifts at the site. If they're able to get the funding for this expansion, they also want these students to be able to perform tasks with a rover, such as sampling dirt or servicing equipment. From what I've heard, it sounds like they really want to use Hal. Now, this is probably more out of convenience than anything else (we're the only team from Utah to compete, and I think the next-closest team would be in California), but still, it feels like an honor to have little Hal considered for such a prestigious job. If it is the case that Hal gets picked to work at the MDRS, next year's team would probably spend their first couple of months making him more durable and reliable, then they'd take the rest of the year to design and build a completely new rover based on what they'd learned from Hal. I guess only time will tell.

-Frère Rubik

P.S. Dude/Dudette, email me about this. I'd love to hear what you think and get stories from what the competition was like in the early days. I'm sure Dr. Allred would love to hear from you, too.