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Hanksville • Southern Utah's iron-red plateaus feel Martian and make the wandering robot digging for chlorophyll feel strangely appropriate.
"Chlorophyll is often a sign of water," explains David Allred, a Brigham Young University physics professor whose students are controlling the robot from a van a hundred yards away.
The University Rover Challenge just outside Hanksville challenges teams of science and engineering students to build a rover for a theoretical Mars mission. Each rover must meet a weight requirement and be remotely controlled by the students.
For the past seven years, university students from across the world have competed for a $5,000 prize, a year's worth of bragging rights and the privilege to present their design to the Mars Society.
The Mars Society is an organization founded 16 years ago to promote human Mars exploration through practical experiments. The clear emphasis is on collaborative effort and experiential work.
"It's all about simulations," Allred said. "Until you do simulations, you can't know what kind of problems you'll run into."
Allred's team has competed in the challenge all seven years. Each year, the robots' tasks have gotten increasingly specific and involved, from collecting mineral samples to delivering packages for empty space suits far into the desert. The goal has shifted from the independent 2012 Mars rover Curiosity to a helper-bot.
"If you're on Mars, you might want a little R2D2 to go out and do some stuff for you," said Allred. "You need a little guy to haul or collect samples, and it needs to be able to do a lot of different things in that regard."
The logistics of an all-terrain vehicle with research and analysis capabilities can stagger the contestants. Entire teams of engineering and science students have put in several thousand combined hours of work only to have their machine founder. A team from Poland whose rover was held by U.S. Customs until 2 a.m. Friday could only move their rover a few feet. The Indian team and Cornell University team couldn't get theirs to move at all.
"We had some mixed results today," said Kevin Sloan, the challenge's director. "Some did really well and some had kind of a hard time getting off the ground."
The communication between the control students and the rover itself is a notoriously troublesome operation, which judge Darrell Robertson says is half the point. What works in a controlled lab doesn't always work in the field.
"Something can work well on the smooth pavement of a university," said Robertson, "but out here with the gravel, and having driven miles on a dirt road, it's not the same. It shakes things up."
The difficulty reinforces the point of the exercise. On Mars, explains Robertson, you have no backup and no "Plan B." Simply transporting something that great a distance can compromise equipment. You have to test your machine to exhaustion, make sure you have spare parts, and devote countless tedious hours to collaboration with other scientists. For the Mars Society, no better exploration training exists.
"Typically, the teams that do well have something in common," said Chuck McMurry, the deputy director of education for the Mars Society. "They test, then they test, then they test. Then after they're done, they go ahead and test again. The whole point is practical, hands-on experience. That's how things get solved."
The engineering-heavy contestant pool prides itself on the contest even in the face of the inevitable difficulty. In the university world of theory, the building, workshopping and competition are a rare practical experience.
"I've had people look at my résumé and be like, 'Oh, wow, yeah, tell me about the Mars Society rover thing,' " said James Schwab, the BYU team physicist. "Even if we don't make it work, it's great experience."
The BYU team has come in second place the past three years. Their rover's chlorophyll sampling arm fell off during the test this year.
"We talk about something called 'technology readiness level,' " shrugged David Allred. "C'mon, they're underfunded college students, they have other things to do and no time. We're never actually at the technology readiness level."
The three-day competition continues Saturday.