HANKSVILLE, Utah — A team of engineering students at Brigham Young University is coming home triumphant after four days of intense competition against universities from around the world.
The team placed ninth out of 100 entrants in the "University Rover Challenge" hosted annually near Hanksville, Utah.
The BYU rover was part of a capstone project for a group of engineering students at the university.
"I saw a flyer walking down the hall," said co-team leader of the team, McKay Christensen. "I said, you know, robots are cool. I'm a mechanical engineer. I don't know what I want to do with my future yet, right. So it sounds like a great opportunity to explore."
While this team has been working on the rover for over a year, the bones of the rover are about seven years old. Past BYU teams have left their rovers and designs for future generations to use.
"We also made some very significant changes in the rover, and remanufacturing most of the rover if not all of the rover itself," Christensen said.
It's not small feat to be selected as a finalist in this challenge. In the competition, the student-built rovers have to be able to complete a list of specific tasks.
"First off, we have to have a robot arm that we attach to our rover," Christensen explained. "The other task is we have to manipulate a sensor suite that's on the rover itself, looking for signs of life... so we have some tests that we do onboard the rover that scan soil, scan rocks for fossils, and then help us identify whether or not there is life on those samples that we have. Last but not least, we do have an autonomous traversal task to where the judges will give us GPS waypoints and we have to implement computer vision as well as some heading and filtering to be able to get our rover to where it needs to go without running over cliffs and rocks or bushes, or whatever it may be."
Universities from around the world traveled to Utah to compete. The rural area is known to have the most Mars-like terrain on earth, knows as the "Mars Desert Research Station."
So while BYU's team only had to drive a few hours, teams from Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Colombia, Egypt, India, Mexico, Poland, Turkey and other states in the U.S. flew in to show off their rovers.
The University of Michigan won first place in the challenge, followed by Australia's Monash University and the Missouri University of Science & Technology.
But students say the challenge was about more than just winning. Christensen explained that everyone loves to "geek out" and talk about the space industry.
"It was really, really cool to have that camaraderie of engineers and say, 'Hey, we're we're not just we're not enemies here competing, we're engineers that are taking on the world trying to figure out the best ways to build these systems,'" Christensen said. "It was really, really fun."
Many of the students are already looking toward a future in space exploration after graduation, so while the rovers that were built may not travel to Mars, the students who built them will likely play a role in the future of space.
As for the BYU rover, Christensen said that it'll go in a BYU storage area until next year's team pulls it out and starts from scratch.