Students earn top marks in Mars rover competition
June 22, 2022--The UC San Diego Yonder Dynamics student team made a triumphant return to the first in-person University Rover Challenge since 2019, claiming 1st place in the science portion of the Mars rover robotics competition, and 8th place overall out of 26 teams from around the world.
Their rover, named Complacency in jest, was put to the test in the rough, rocky terrain of Hanksville, Utah. The University Rover Challenge (URC), hosted by the Mars Society, has four mission challenges that the rovers must complete: testing for signs of life, traversing difficult terrain to deliver a payload, repairing broken equipment on a mock lander, and autonomously navigating to a set location.
Complacency crushed the science portion of the mission, where teams must use tools and sensors onboard their rover to collect soil and rock samples to search for signs of life and analyze the composition of the rocks. The Yonder team used a powerful camera on the Complacency to photograph the rocks to determine their composition, and used Raman spectroscopy to test for beta carotene, a molecule that helps protect bacteria from UV light and can be used to detect signs of extinct life. To detect extant, or still existing life, they used a turbidity testing approach to detect how high levels of bacteria are in the soil.
While this earned the team first place in this portion of the competition, Nupoor Patil, a biochemistry and cognitive science double major who served as the Science team lead within Yonder Dynamics, said the team already has plans to improve for next year’s competition.
“We think there are better ways to test for extant life than our approach this year, so something that we will probably be doing for next year is protein or lipid testing, maybe even some carbohydrate testing,” Patil said. “ And then more environmental testing, so measures including pH, pressure, temperature, and things like that will also give us a better idea of whether there is life and bacteria in the soil or not.”
Karl Johnson, an electrical engineering student and the Yonder Dynamics project manager, said the science portion of the rover isn’t the only thing the team hopes to update in the upcoming year.
“One of the things we're working on is we're going to be in contact with some of the microwave engineering and antenna professors at UC San Diego to figure out the best approach for the wireless communication aspect of the competition, for a hopefully more efficient approach than the high frequency but directional antenna we used this year,” Johnson said. “This year we kept our chassis from our previous rover Apathy and upgraded the electronics and sensors on it, but next year we’re planning to upgrade that part as well so we’ll have a brand new chassis.”
Johnson and Patil are two of the roughly 30 students from across UC San Diego who spent long hours perfecting the autonomy, mechanics, communication and on-board sensors of the rover. They came away not only with a sense of camaraderie, but also tangible skills for what they hope to pursue after graduation.
“I’m interested in astrobiology, which is the field that I’ve been working in with Yonder, and that is something that I will be looking into for graduate school because there’s a lot out there in terms of looking for life on other planets,” said Patil.
Johnson plans to parlay his optics expertise within electrical engineering to a space-related field, be it telescopes, internet for satellites, or something at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
“It's really cool to work on a team where even though my focus on this team is very robotics-heavy and electronics related, the ideas and the overall field is so exciting to me,” he said.
Yonder Dynamics is recruiting new students to join them as they build their 2023 rover and work to top their 8th place finish next year. Learn more at their website.
Jacobs School of Engineering