WHAT IS URC?
The University Rover Challenge (URC) is a Mars Rover design competition, held annually in the Utah Desert by volunteers from the Mars Society. From the Official URC Website (http://urc.marssociety.org/), “The URC is the world’s premier robotics competition for college students”. The competition was launched in 2006, with competitions being held annually since 2007. The field of competing teams has grown enormously since, with USST taking part in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
Recently there have been as many as 90 teams applying to the competition, and usually less than half make it past the judges Critical Design Review stage. Those that make it past the judges are allowed into the competition, making it a very competitive event. The event itself is made up of four different challenges: Science Cache, Retrieval and Delivery, Equipment Servicing, and Terrain Traversal. These events are outlined in more detail below.
In 2014, the team made the 2100 km trek down to Hanksville, Utah for the first time, with the first generation USST Mars Rover: MARCO. Despite numerous challenges, both those set forth from the competition and the technical challenges experienced from the competition, the team placed well. The USST placed seventh overall, second among the Canadian teams, and first among the teams new to the competition that year.
In 2015, the team set out again for URC with an all-new rover: Marco MkII. Mechanically, a new carbon fiber chassis was built, along with a new aluminum suspension, robotic arm, and 100% 3D-Printed End Effector. Electrically, this rover saw the addition of a stereoscopic camera, allowing the use of an Oculus Rift VR headset for use in controlling the rover. The team was confident in placing well once again, with a new rover and being a returning team. The rover performed very well, taking first among Canadian teams this time, as well as third among North American teams and seventh overall.
In 2016, the biggest additions to the new rover, Marco MkIII, was a custom carbon fiber suspension and Maxxon wheel motors. This meant that the rover was much quicker, lighter and more powerful. A major new feature from the software and electrical side was the addition of an autonomous driving system. Unfortunately, some electrical issues just before competition led to some problems during challenges. The team persevered to take 10th in Group B, just behind McGill for 2nd Canadian Team in the group.
For URC 2018, the all-new rover is currently in production. Upgrades include an entirely new suspension, chassis, and arm. The end-effector is gaining a significant upgrade as well. In the interest of saving weight from what is already one of the lightest rovers at URC, all new parts will be made from either carbon fiber or 3D-Printed materials.
The Science Cache task goal is to collect samples in the field, perform scientific analysis on-board the rover, and bring a sample back to the base station for further analysis. Example analysis includes likelihood of supporting microbial life, using data such as evidence of water flow and minerals present.
RETRIEVAL AND DELIVERY
Also know as the ‘astronaut assistance’ task, the goal is to pick up objects from a central cache and deliver them to specified locations. An important point with this competition is that the rovers are designed as aides to humans already on Mars, rather than being sent alone. Thus, the objects are often tools or supply containers, and the specified locations are astronauts waiting in the field for supplies. The rover must carry these tools of various sizes and weights to the astronauts over rough and rugged terrain.
This task requires fine motor skills, performing various dexterous operations on a mock equipment system. As in the Retrieval task, these rovers are meant to help humans on Mars, thus they must perform servicing tasks at the control of a human. Potential challenges range from delicate tasks such typing commands on a keyboard to more rugged tasks including turning a hand crank. This task requires a very well designed arm and end-effector system to be able to perform well.
The object of this task is to drive through a variety of gates on different types of terrain. This terrain varies from steep drops and soft sand to large rocks and crevices. This task was made significantly more difficult in 2017 by making it autonomous. Thus, the rover had to drive over difficult terrain through gates, without a human operator and running only on GPS coordinates. The rover must decide for itself the direction to travel, and how to get there.