Julia Marek/The Scorpio Team

Off the road we go! It’s really like off road when you say it about Mars rover driving on Earth soil, and it’s even more off road speaking of it being tested in some remote location outside the city. The Wrocław based Scorpio Team that will participate in the upcoming European Rover Challenge 2014, has already tested its rover's driving skills and OK’d it for the competition, confident that a difficult, resembling the Red Planet terrain is not a problem at all. “The rover is capable to go through sandy slopes, even 45 degrees, not only when it climbs straight, but also along the slope, what practically means the rover can’t be flipped over,” Szymon Dzwończyk of the Scorpio Team told me in an e-mail interview. “The rover’s driving system has been constructed since last year’s summer vacation, thanks to that, it is now functioning unfailingly and unconventionally.” The European Rover Challenge (ERC) will be held in Podzamcze, Poland on Sept. 5-7.

OFF ROAD is the name of a scientific circle at the Wrocław University of Technology, where the team has its roots. It’s all about unconventional vehicles there, and Scorpio IV rover is its shining flagship example. The team is an experienced one, being successful at the University Rover Challenge in 2013, when it scored 400.75 out of 500 points and finished 2nd. It consists of students mainly from the Faculty of Mechanical Engineering and the Faculty of Electronics.

The rover is already built and it drives smoothly after a series of tests. “On Aug. 20, we performed tests of a whole driving system at the Żelazny Most tailings pond (near Polkowice, Lower Silesia, Poland). It turns out that the rover’s suspension not only meets the initial project’s requirements but outruns them.” Dzwończyk said.

The European Rover Challenge involving analogues of Mars rovers, is a competition for teams of students and recent graduates of higher education institutions, who, with the help of their faculty, try to first design and build and then field the best rover. The core of the Challenge are four practical tasks: a science task involving obtaining and analyzing samples, a “blind” navigation task, in which the team will have to guide the rover to a certain destination using just GPS coordinates and no camera input, and two engineering tasks that will require using and repairing equipment. During all of the tasks, the teams will have to control their rovers without seeing them directly. Performance during the four field tasks and the jury presentation is scored and the rover with the highest total score is declared the Challenge winner.

“I think the Assistance Task will be the easiest one for us to handle,” Dzwończyk admitted. "During this task, we will have to collect some object from a magazine and deliver it to the repair site. The rover’s manipulator as well as its steering are already working really good,” he explained.

But what about the most difficult part of the Challenge? Dzwończyk is convinced that the Blind Traversal Task will be a real nail biting moment for the team. “It’s not only that when performing this task we cannot see what’s happening with the rover, but we have to reach specified GPS coordinates, hardly achievable for our system,” he said.

Having that in mind, let’s hope OFF ROAD will stay on the road for the competition and all the teams will present a high level of Mars on Earth roving skills, battling tough for fame and cash prizes. 

The ERC event is organized by Mars Society Polska, in cooperation with Planet PR, the Marshal Office of the Świętokrzyskie Voivodeship, and the Regional Science-Technology Centre in Podzamcze near Chęciny. The Polish National Centre for Research and Development, the Polish Agency for Enterprise Development, Com Creation, Axis Communications, the Austrian Space Forum and ABM Space Education are event Partners. The Polish Ministry of Economy and the European Commission Representation in Poland have taken honorary patronage over the event.