Technology Science - Two Canadian universities in international Mars rover contest

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York's rover, E.V.E., is one of eight from around the world competing in the Mars-like sandstone desert near Hanksville, Utah. York's rover, E.V.E., is one of eight from around the world competing in the Mars-like sandstone desert near Hanksville, Utah. Stanley Lio/York University Rover Team

Robotic rovers built by students at two Canadian universities pulled through some tense moments as they explored a Mars-like landscape as part of an international competition.

Toronto's York University and the University of Waterloo are trying to beat six other contenders from the U.S., Poland and Italy to win the University Rover Challenge.

The contest, which continues until Saturday, is put on annually by the Mars Society, a group dedicated to the exploration and human settlement of Mars.

York's rover, E.V.E., had trouble Friday climbing a steep hill in the rough and rocky sandstone desert near Hanksville, Utah.

"Everyone's heart almost dropped when one of E.V.E.'s wheels went over a boulder at the hill and almost flipped," the team posted on its Facebook site. "Luckily, E.V.E.'s designated babysitter for today, Chitii [one of the students], was there to catch her in time."

The team also reported some problems with its rangefinder, and decided to "call it a day" a little early.

Waterloo's team faced some troubles of its own. The seven-person team discovered Thursday, the first day of the contest, that their rover had exceeded the 50-kg weight limit and could lose points as a result.

"We are working towards reducing our weight for the competitions," wrote team spokesman Pablo Molina in an email to CBC News.

The rovers are awarded points for completing four scientific tasks:

  • Surveying a site to locate markers that should be visible from specific vantage points.
  • Collecting and returning a sample likely to contain photosynthetic bacteria, other colonies of bacteria, or other organisms such as lichens.
  • Deliver supplies to mock astronauts out in the desert.
  • Service equipment by pushing buttons, flipping switches, and connecting three-prong plugs (U.S. style) into electrical outlets at an instrument panel.

This is Waterloo's second year in the competition.

Last year its team placed fifth. This year's six-wheeled rover has a larger frame than the one they built last year, so the electronics and computer are a better fit and easier to debug.

The team has also improved its rover's robotic arm, as last year's version had trouble with the equipment-servicing task.

York has competed in the contest three times before and came second last year.

Jordan Bailey, one of two students responsible for the team's finances and marketing, said he thinks the current rover is the team's "best one yet."

Last year, the team faced multiple equipment failures as a result of the record temperatures, which soared to 38 C in the shade.

This year's model has a more robust suspension, a finer control system, and better temperature regulation than its predecessor, Bailey said.

The rover cost about $13,000 to build, slightly below the $15,000 maximum allowed. It was sponsored by York University, Ontario Centres of Excellence and MDA, a B.C.-based defence contractor.

Waterloo's rover is sponsored by Ottawa-based Neptec, the Waterloo Engineering Endowment Fund, ComDev and KW Telescopes.

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