To an outsider, the wheeled vehicles developed by people at the Center for Self-Organizing and Intelligent Systems at Utah State University look like toys, but to the builders they are serious business.

Serious because the center has spun off a company, Visionary Products Inc., that will be manufacturing and selling the devices created on the college campus with some other firms. The Centers of Excellence program was created more than 10 years ago to take campus-generated technology and turn it into companies and jobs.One of the biggest successes for the center to date has been a project involving Lego blocks, those seemingly simply, yet fascinating pieces of plastic that can make hundreds of different items and shapes.

Initially, the center was encouraged by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop a backup navigation system for forerunners of the small Sojourner rover vehicle that landed on Mars last summer. Called the mock rover, the vehicle has led the center and the company into other projects.

In the fall of 1994, the executive director of The Planetary Society, a group advancing the cause of space and planetary exploration, suggested a joint venture with the center to develop a classroom educational project designed to interest schoolchildren in space exploration.

This would expose them at an early age to the advanced technical fields of computer control, intelligent systems, robotics and other technical areas.

Coming from the joint venture was the Red Rover, Red Rover Project that is being produced and co-marketed by Visionary Products Inc. and Lego Corp. Using Lego blocks and some technical equipment, students build a model of a Mars rover and also build a simulated Mars landscape.

By putting their landscape on the Internet, students in other parts of the country can drive rovers without leaving the classroom and they also can converse with each other about how they built their rover and other technical equipment.

Robert Gunderson, center director, Ben Abbott, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at USU, and Gordon Olsen, research associate at the center, said it has been interesting to see how the Red Rover project has evolved into how students from other parts of the country made their Mars landscape and how often they want to drive the vehicle at the USU center.

Gunderson said the next project with Lego is to create a home version of the Red Rover technology so the fun is available to students and their families.

Following creation of the mock rover came the advanced rover chassis 2, a six-wheeled vehicle that could be used to get instruments into areas where people don't want to go. For example, the vehicle could be used to transport instruments to test the extent of hazardous wastes, chemicals or nuclear waste so people will know how to deal with it.

Each wheel on the vehicle operates independently for great mobility, Gunderson said, and operated from a distance by hu-mans with a console.

Next came the advanced rover chassis 3 with six wheels and rubber tires. It is capable of doing more things that its predecessor.

About 18 months ago the Idaho National Engineering and Environmental Laboratory in Idaho Falls suggested that the center's rover-type technology could be applied to agriculture so Gunderson and his crew modified an eight-wheeled all terrain vehicle that could be sent onto farms to take soil samples and see what is needed to get the most out of crops.

After the soil is sampled and it's determined what is needed, the vehicle could be equipped with a spray-er that could apply chemicals or fertilizer and all of this is accomplished because of special computer software.

Gunderson said the center is negotiating license agreements with large agriculture-related companies for the center's technology.