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Carlos Pozo would love one day to see one of his unmanned robotic vehicles scour the surface of Mars for signs of life.
For now, he and a team of Brigham Young University students settled for the desert landscape near Huntsville as they tested their rover design against those designed by other universities from around the country.
The first University Rover Challenge, hosted by The Mars Society required students to build unmanned robots that can study soil samples and communicate via radio with a base station.
"I've always had an interest in robotics and unmanned vehicles," said Pozo, a mechanical engineering student from Bolivia. "Hopefully I'll be using them in space one day, but for now, Earth will do."
A group of about a dozen students designed and built the camera-equipped rover featuring a robotic arm. The device measures about 2 1/2 feet long and 2 feet wide. Its metal chassis is covered in canvas to protect it from overheating and from invading sand.
The students were judged on two different tasks. They dispatched the rover to remote sites and searched for signs of life. The team designed a specialized viewing system with the operator wearing goggles back at the base station. The goggles provided the advantage of a three-dimensional view.
"It's just like the operator is sitting on top of the rover," said Neil Hinckley, the senior in mechanical engineering who developed the idea. "I'm an amateur photographer, so that experience made me think of giving the operator a 3-D view."
Participation by students of different backgrounds helped make the project more of a real-world experience because engineers often work with people in other fields.
"The way they designed the craft came from what I needed it to do," said teammate Miles Atkinson, an environmental geology senior. "I would tell them what I needed, they would make it and then we'd both make sure it was good enough. They were all really good to work with."
Astronomy and physics professor David Allred, who oversaw the project, announced the competition in an introductory physics course required for all engineering majors, and was pleased with the amount of work his students put into the $7,000 rover.
"At least a thousand hours went into this," he said, adding BYU covered the cost of the rover. "Their weakness is their strength because these students like to build things that you can go out and buy instead."
The camaraderie built by this year's team has prompted those not graduating to participate in the project again next year.
"I absolutely will continue making the rover," Pozo said. "I will use what I learned Saturday to see what needs to be better and what improvements I can make."
* SHEENA MCFARLAND can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 801-257-8619.