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BYU Mars Rover Team places 3rd at University Rover Challenge


The Mars Rover Team placed 3rd for the second year in a row, but with higher stakes and a higher score.

The BYU Mars Rover Team returned to the University Rover Challenge in Hanksville, Utah's Mars Desert Research Station to take third place once again at this year's competition.

Heading into the tricky challenge, the team had one main goal: maintain last years' standard and even exceed it if possible. The team maintained their third place status in a competition full of shake-ups, and scored 30.15 points higher than last year.

"We wanted to make sure that we will cement ourselves as one of the top contenders," said Ethan Smith, team lead (computer engineering).

"Dr. Killpack was confident we could get top ten, and if we worked hard, we could get top three...the people that have put in the time to get their rover reliably functional at a basic level, [they're the] top half of the pack," said Spencer Stowell, team lead (mechanical engineering).

The University Rover Challenge is comprised of five tasks to ensure a team's rover can perform tasks similar to that of a NASA rover.

First up is the System Acceptance Review, which happens months prior to the University Rover Challenge. Hopeful teams submit a six-page report and five-minute video for judges to determine if they will move forward in the competition. The remaining four challenges are completed in a randomly assigned order at the Mars Desert Research Station:

The Extreme Retrieval and Delivery Mission involves remote operation of the rover to collect samples, tools, and supplies for astronauts. Teams are in a nearby trailer and control their rover remotely with only a camera feed and coordinates to guide them.

The Autonomous Navigation Mission involves autonomous navigation of the terrain (a course designed to mimic Mars' terrain). Teams cannot communicate with the rover in this challenge, making it the most difficult of the challenges.

"You just press a button and then the rover will do just had to cross your fingers and pray that it worked like it was supposed to," said Grant Thompson, software subteam lead.

The Equipment Servicing Mission involves the robotic arm of the rover, requiring it to perform precise tasks on a rocket payload setup pictured below.

The Science Mission involves the analyzing of samples collected to determine habitability of the terrain.

One of the hallmarks of this challenge is technical difficulties ranging from software to durability. The terrain is rough on these rovers, so teams must prepare for the worst prior to traveling to the site.

"Everything that can go wrong will go wrong," Smith said. "It doesn't matter how many tests you run, how confident you are in your system and your robot."

A few malfunction highlights: three wheels falling off over the course of the competition (with the rover continuing unbothered), a malfunctioning GPS during Extreme Retrieval and Delivery, a blank video feed during Equipment Servicing, and several busted systems.

"It's a really robust system, and we built it so that if things go wrong, then it can usually continue operating," Stowell said.

Coming to the competition with a 3rd place win under their belt, the team felt the pressure to do well.

"We were going to represent not only our team, but the [College of Engineering] and BYU, and we absolutely wanted to put our best foot forward," said Stowell.

One of the team's strengths was teamwork. The team was split into subteams for each challenge and each engineering emphasis involved (i.e. software subteam and autonomous subteam). However, various subteam members worked to help their fellow subteams once their challenges were completed.

The night before the Science Mission, the science module was broken in a test run. The science portion was the only challenge BYU had left to complete, so various team members worked together to fix the rover.

"We spent all night on it. We were up until 2 AM shining all of our flashlights on it trying to get it to work," Smith explained.

The kicker? Only two of the eight team members helping were actually on the Science subteam. Their efforts paid off when they got their score— BYU was the only team to get a perfect score on the Science Mission, making them the only perfect score of the entire competition.

"We knew that everybody was there because they were willing to be there," said Thompson.

"There was no one person that got us third place, because everybody was putting in time, everybody was helping. The fact that we had a multidsciplinary team was really key to that," Stowell said.

In addition to being an amazing experience, the BYU Mars Rover Team was a capstone project for the students. The capstone nature of the project resulted in a sycronized motivation to do the best they could, creating lasting memories and valuable experience.

"I loved working with this team...It made me enjoy waking up and getting to class by 8 AM every single morning," Smith said. "Everyone there was so willing and so enthusiastic about the rover."

BYU's teamwork and sportsmanship not only won them 3rd place, but created meaningful relationships with competing schools. BYU Engineering offered their facilities for international teams to prepare their rovers for competition. Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, happily accepted.

"We kind of got surprised when they offered. It was very, very kind of them. It was amazing. Normally, we assemble it in our hotel or Airbnb, the dining room or living room area, just on the floor," Jack Baker, Co-CEO of the team said.

Monash University won 2nd place at last year's University Rover Challenge, making them one of BYU's biggest competitors.

Overall, the BYU Mars Rover team gained valuable skills and experience to apply in their future careers in addition to noteworthy life lessons. Over the course of the team's year of preparation, they were able to present the rover at local middle and high schools.

Student leaders attributed the win to their team, saying that the group made their leadership roles easy.

"There are just so many intelligent and skilled people on our team that were a joy to work with...It was really amazing to see all these skill sets come together in different and unique ways," said Thompson.

"Everyone was super awesome. Everyone had amazing ideas all the time, everyone was super committed to the task. I couldn't ask [for] anything more," Smith said.

The full score breakdowns can be found here.