The four-wheeled robot crawled through the sand, and then slid into a crater and got stuck. In front of it, as far as the eye could see, was the vast Martian desert, hostile and unexplored.
It seemed hopeless, until the young man who built it stooped down and lifted it out of the crater. There were lots of other robots, 26 of them, trudging around obstacles on their own until rescued by their owners.
Okay, so it wasn’t actually Mars, but it sure looked like it. That’s the reason why the Colorado Space Grant Consortium (CSGU) has held the Colorado Robotics Challenge at the Great Sand Dunes National Park every year for the past 13 years.
The obstacle course is split into 6 parts, each with an increasing amount of difficulty. The first track contains nothing but sand, but as the robots progress more obstacles are added, including rock piles, branches, wooden walls and ramps, and deep craters dug into the sand.
Most of the robots had four wheels, but some had six, or wheels shaped like flowers or screws. Some of them didn’t have wheels at all and instead used legs to walk. They were built of many different materials, from cardboard boxes to plastic containers. One of them was entirely 3D-printed.
Audrey Viland, the manager of the Challenge based at CU Boulder, explained that each of the different robots was built with certain capabilities in mind, like climbing over rocks or moving easily through the sand. They all have to meet some required specifications, including sensors so that they can detect obstacles and find their way to a beacon.
“The goal for the challenge is to reach the Beacon — the spinny thing in the middle,” Viland said, pointing to a spinning pinwheel on a tripod. “We don’t want to use GPS at all since we don’t have satellites orbiting Mars. But you can use a compass, assuming that Mars has as strong of a magnetic field as Earth does.”
Viland also explained that the competitors made their robots in teams. “The number of people they have depends on the school, but a lot of them are part of their robotics clubs, while others are part of a class. I know a couple schools that have three people per team, and some that have like 20.”
The Challenge is not really a competition — there are no winners or losers, and anyone is allowed to enter their robot. Most of the teams were from high schools and colleges around Colorado and northern New Mexico, but there were a couple of middle school teams as well.
A lot of the competitors had participated before, but a few people were joining for the first time. “My main objective was just to get it to work,” said Kenneth Roberts, a college student at CU Pueblo. “This is my first time doing any serious coding, so I really just wanted to get it going.”
Sponsored by NASA, the Challenge is a great opportunity every year for young people to gain hands-on experience in building robots, some of them undoubtedly heading for careers as engineers who might design the next generation of rovers that will continue exploring the Moon, Mars, and beyond.