A True Recount of Courage’s First Days

by Allison Kubo, Yonder Dynamics Instruments Lead


Thunder sounds in the distance; teams scramble to cover the sum of their labor, the wires and metal tubes that are the sole purpose of stranding themselves in the Utah desert.

We are in Hanksville, a series of buildings about a mile long in various levels of rustic dilapidation. This contrasts sharply with the advanced robotics and teams of highly skilled university students that are strung along highway 24 in a frantic spread.

Hanksville is the site of the University Rover Challenge (URC) hosted by the Mars Society; 36 international teams rove the desert in four tasks testing the durability, ruggedness, autonomy, and science capability of the $15,000, 50 kilogram machines. Yonder Dynamics is one of those teams. We are number 36 to be exact. As a new team, we are the the first to compete from UC San Diego and the only representative from the UC system to make it to the finals.

There are 13 weary, excited, brilliant UCSD students in and outside the Hanksville Inn making adjustments to the rover after a 20 hour drive to Utah. We are working to get it ready for the next two competition tasks beginning tomorrow at 7 AM. To be honest, it will take a miracle to compete tomorrow. We forfeited one task today after we got to our campsite at 2:00AM. That leaves three more over the next two days. As of 12:00 PM the second day of competition, our rover has not yet moved under its own power.

The rover is rainbow — colored, an amalgamation of many specially designed 3D printed parts. Its guts, a Jetson TX1, lithium ion battery, and motor drivers, are open to the air; Chris Liu, the electrical lead, leans over an intestine’s worth of coiled wires. Liu was too stressed for an interview but he did give a half smile and a shrug. Cofounder of Yonder and recent graduate, Alex Smith, runs through the code to control the swerve drive motors. Next to him, Kyle Gillespie, our mechanical lead, tends to the front left gear box.

“I am gonna run it,” Alex Smith says. We hold our breaths.

Nothing happens. I am hesitant to bother their work so I move on.

The other cofounder of Yonder Dynamics, Kirk Hutchison, sits in the shade filing down an aluminum mount for the arm as he gets his hair cut by our photographer Ben Sher. If nothing else, the members of Yonder are consummate multitaskers.

Thirty minutes after the first motor test, I hear the wheels run in a satisfying buzz and Alex Smith lets out a nervous shout of triumph. Another step toward driving in competition tomorrow.

It seems surreal to Kirk Hutchison that it has been a year since the inception of Yonder Dynamics. When asked, Kirk resorted to quoting Alex in what, considering our two intrepid leaders, can only be called solidarity in codependence.

“We were reflecting back on the past,” he says. “Sure the rover might not work but in one year we went from no members, no money, no lab space to this. It took nine months to build up the team then just nine weeks to build this. It fills me with hope for next year.”

It starts to rain hard at 5:30 pm. The Brigham Young University (BYU) team shelters us and work continues.

The Hanksville Inn, inhabited almost solely by rover teams, is filled with an easy camaraderie. Next to us is the Continuum team from Poland, over in room 7 is the BYU team. Then in the shade of a tree the Missouri Rover Design Team from Missouri S&T parks their trailer. The friendly atmosphere stems from the fact that no one else can understand our mania, which is definitely the correct word to describe us.

After a brief dinner, we continue work. Then while lifting the rover, it shorts and now none of the motors move. We enter crisis management with surprising flair and calm. Chris Liu, our electrical lead, chugs a beer then proceeds to attempt to save us.

“It’s in the hands of god now,” Kirk jokes. “And by god, I mean Chris.”

There are some hysterical laughs.

Alex sits, sipping his beer with his computer characteristically across his lap, a rock in a sea of scurrying people and wires. His constitutional optimism bolsters the team.

I go to sleep at 12:00 AM. I have to be awake to drive tomorrow morning. Drive to forfeit the task or attempt it I am uncertain. I cling to the possibility of miracles. Outside, I hear the people speaking Polish and rover tires on gravel.

Just before I fall asleep, Alex tells us the motors are running again. I dream of roving.

The next day, I wake to someone’s head sticking through the door and Kirk sprinting outside in his pajamas. The rover is driving they say. I bolt out of bed.

In the early morning light, our rover rolls around on the gravel. I have never seen it actually move. Alex controls it with his laptop, USB cable like an umbilical cord. The rover moves.

The rover moves and I have never seen a more beautiful sunrise. Mrs. Elliot, the team mother, insists on taking the team to the restaurant across the street and they gorge on eggs and bacon before collapsing in a pile on the single bed. Some of them even showered.

Happy and confident, we forfeit our next two tasks. It moves, yes, but little more, not enough functionality for us to even attempt autonomy or equipment servicing tasks. The competition tasks would not only require full mobility but also obstacle avoidance software that had never been tested, as well as a manipulator arm and hand that were not working. But I have hope for our fourth and final task, science cache. As Science Lead and with zeroes on the first three tasks, I see it as a real chance to claw our way from dead last to a respectable second — to — last. I know the rover won’t be able perform all the required challenges of the task, soil collection and data acquisition. But we find out that we can take a 25% penalty and walk the course without using the rover. We don’t need the rover to work the judge says. Kirk and I breathe a sigh of relief this gives us a chance to score some points; no need for a miracle, just some science. I, we, have come too far for yet another zero.

I almost don’t believe it when Euan pops his head in the door and gives us the news.

“One of the wheels snapped off,” he says. I want to think it is a joke but with the series of events that has led us here to a packed hotel room in central Utah, I only believe in Murphy’s law. Like true engineers, they turn to sophisticated repair methods: epoxy and zip ties. I remind them it doesn’t need to run, that we can just take the 25% penalty, but they are determined make it run by force of will rather than engineering genius if necessary. After months of work, they are desperate that the rover will drive in competition tomorrow. Exhaustion is such a palpable and palatable thing but so is their manic determination. I have lost count of how many all-nighters they have pulled.

“I will sleep when Chris sleeps,” Alex says when I beg him to get some rest tonight. Chris says he does not plan to sleep.

I immerse myself in research papers on geology and astrobiology, retreating from the hot Utah sun.


The next morning, Kirk, Alex Mai, and I leave the rover behind and set off for the Mars Desert Research Station. The truck kicks up a stream of fine red dust behind us. The red color and ruggedness almost convinces us that we are indeed on Mars. The landscape is dramatic, large mesas of red rocks jut out to shade the road. White sandstones crumble into boulders and roll down the hills. I try to ignore it and focus on the road.

We arrive 10 minutes early for our allotted time. We approach the judge and confidently announce our intentions to walk the course manually and take a 25% penalty. The judge says, “If you don’t have your rover you lose 90% of the points. Even if it doesn’t work you still need it,” she says. “You have to take a picture with the rover at least.”

There has obviously been a serious miscommunication.

I bolt to the truck leaving Kirk to deal with this. We kick up a lot of dust as I roar back to Hanksville. Frantically, I call every team member’s number, crying for signal.

In Hanksville, the rest of the team has just taken off the front left wheel for repair. Christian Conaway, my only call to go through, runs to them and says, “They need the rover now”. I can only imagine the looks on Euan’s face but I am told it was priceless.

They are still attaching the front left wheel when I get back to the Hanksville Inn. I slam the door on the truck and race to our workstation, adrenaline pumping through my veins.

“We need to go. We needed to go five minutes ago.”

They nod and add more zip ties to the rover. We carry it to the other truck and the whole team piles into the back to hold it while Chris drives to the competition site.

Meanwhile, Kirk is undergoing a stressful 20 minutes as we eat through all our set up time and into the 20 minutes of competition time. With every car that comes over the hill, the judges ask, “Is that your team?”

Ever a man of faith, he just says, “They are on their way.”

He sees the two trucks just as our official competition time is starting.

We roll up to the competition site faster and calmer than I would have thought possible. The team bursts forth from the truck bed and efficiently sets up the rover. It doesn’t move so we have to carry it to the starting position. Alex, laptop tethered to the rover, positions the arm to point out at the alien landscape. All it needs to do is take a picture with the camera mounted there and we can collect the sample by hand.

Meanwhile Alex Mai and Ryan Liu set up Ryan’s laptop in the back of a U-Haul serving as the base station. Although we had not rigorously tested connecting to the rover from the base station, it connects and I see the sweet, sweet view from the camera. We might pull this off. I jump in exhilaration and slap the side of the U-Haul.

The rest of the day goes on with uncharacteristic smoothness. Megan and Sebastian, both mechanical engineers, tested soil fertility. Chris, our divine electrical engineer, coaxed microbes to grow in soil. Kirk, our business manager, ran a delicately calibrated microbiology experiment. Cai, a member of the software team, wrote a program to run the spectrometer. Alex Mai made sure the atmospheric sensors worked. It was a marvel of interdisciplinary work. Feeding on their energy and momentum, we presented our data. Considering that I have been painfully honest with you so far, believe me when I say that the presentation was flawless. The judges said “they had no significant criticisms”. They were the sweetest words I had heard all week. And like that, our competition was finished.

Days upon days of panic and repeated disasters concluded with a 10 minute presentation to the judges without a working rover. We cheered and wearily put away our equipment. I felt the build up of adrenaline and cortisol finally start to dissipate; my hands stopped shaking about an hour later. Engineers napped on the single bed and we all showered off the accumulation of red dust. Putting on a fresh, or at least less dirty, Yonder t-shirt, we gathered again for the awards ceremony.

An exhausted but happy team rolled out to Mars Desert Research Station one more time with the rover in tow. As you expected, we didn’t win.

But we felt like we did.

Alex said it best in his closing speech. We were circled up just like the end of every great sports movie, holding to each other on a hill looking out at the red desert.

“Thank you for making this dream come true for everyone in this circle,” he said to us. Writing it now, I still feel the strength of his affection for us. I feel the warm air, the fading sun, and arms of my friends around my shoulders.

We only scored 151 out of 500 but we had clawed our way from 36th to 29th in the world. And our rover did not drive so much as a single foot during the competition.

We tried, we failed, we learned a lot, we befriended other teams, and we will try again.

After all, we voted to call our rover Courage.