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UofG robotics team faces futuristic, life-saving space scenarios

Canadian International Rover Challenge in Alberta puts student-built rovers to the test through theoretical challenges on a simulated Mars

Disaster has struck the martian settlement and an astronaut needs your help to get to safety. 

No, this isn’t exactly science fiction. Theoretical tasks like these are what the University of Guelph robotics team has been preparing for over the past year with their rover, which is set to compete in the Canadian International Rover Challenge (CIRC) this month. 

The CIRC is an annual summer event that runs over the course of four days in the badlands of Drumheller, Alberta – pretty much the closest thing to Mars in Canada, with unpredictable, rocky, sandy, dry and hot terrain. 

This is the second time the team of Guelph engineering students is competing, after a two-year hiatus due to COVID-19. 

In their first run, they came in second out of all the Canadian teams – even beating the University of Waterloo. They came in sixth internationally, and also scored the rookie of the year award. 

Although they did well, the four-wheel suspension on their rover broke during the competition. 

But they've been itching to get back into the competition, and this year, vice president of external affairs for the club, Zion Maynard, said they’ve learned from their mistakes. 

Now, the suspension on their robot is similar to that on the Mars Rover, which allows for better functionality across unpredictable terrain. 

“It’s miles better, on so many fronts,” Maynard said. 

The robotics club has been around for a while, but in 2019 it decided to move beyond just building robots to building ones that could compete and show off their skills. That’s around the time Maynard joined. 

“When I got there, the whole premise was, 'how can we build the rover (in) one year that can compete in the CIRC.’ From September all the way to August, we’re completely focused on building that rover.” 

The overarching theme of the competition is that when space organizations send rovers out to other planets like Mars, they don’t know what will happen, and need to prepare for different contingencies, which the trials of the competition are based on.

“We’re pretending we’re on Mars, pulling out nuclear reactors that require monitoring and inspection," he said. “As you can imagine, if there are nuclear reactors, you can’t send a person over there because it could be potentially dangerous. This is not earth, where we already have established facilities for nuclear reactors. So we have to send a robot out there unmanned (to see) if the reactors are busted.” 

Another trial consists of a search and rescue after an explosion has taken place at the settlement power reactor, injuring one of their crew members. 

“Radiation has been spreading dangerously around the area, and there’s a huge radioactive cloud that we need to secure. Because the local radiation levels are acutely dangerous, rescue crews can't get there to safely approach the site and mitigate the problem. Our astronaut can’t survive these circumstances for much longer. So the idea is, how can we send a rover out there to be exposed to radiation and retrieve this astronaut,” he said. 

Although these are only theoretical scenarios, the time crunch and the stress that comes with it is very real. But this year, Maynard says they’re ready for anything. 

“We have a really good suspension,” he said. “And if we placed second with our (broken suspension), what can we do with fully functioning suspension?”

“We have a really talented team going out there, and when we say team, we mean team in the best way possible,” he said. “We’ve been waiting two years to prove we can do better in this competition.”

Being part of a team like this not only enables students to develop and finesse their robotics engineering skills, it gives them the chance to work as a team, practice time management and to learn about how they handle high stress situations that might come up on the job. 

But Maynard said competing in the CIRC proved to them – and employers – that Guelph engineering students can hold their own. 

“When you think of engineering schools around Canada, you think of University of Toronto, UBC, Waterloo. People don’t think of Guelph,” he said. “(But) we’re just as good. It’s about the effort you put in, rather than the name of your school.”

The team is always looking for sponsors to keep them afloat. If you’re interested in sponsoring or joining, you can learn more here.