By Maciek Mysliwiec
Imagine the rover you’ve built is carrying out its mission on Mars, an average of 225 million kilometers from Earth. Unfortunately, the so-far smooth process is disrupted, and you have no way to send a repair team. It is also impossible to replace the broken component. You can give up, accept defeat and abort the mission. Or you can find a solution that may bring you closer to solving the problem by reprogramming your rover remotely.
In 2019, during the Mars InSight mission, NASA encountered a major problem: the probe’s drill that was supposed to explore the planet’s rock cover got stuck while drilling and couldn’t be extricated. This blocked many of the lander’s functions. After many failed attempts, scientists decided to use a simple, though seemingly – controversial solution. It was decided that Mars InSight would use a shovel that was on the other robotic arm and hit the arm with a drill to get it out of the trap. However, this meant that the rover had to be properly programmed to hit itself. No one had planned such a solution before, so developing the code required creativity and great accuracy. To make sure that the solution could work it was tested on Earth beforehand.
A similar solution was used in the Curiosity rover, which has already traversed the surface of the Red Planet for some time and whose wheel was damaged by hard obstacles. It was reprogrammed so that the damaged wheel drove purposely on a hard and sharp rock. All of this was done to protect the rover’s electronics by removing a dangerous damaged piece of plastic from the wheel sheath. The threat of cutting through the rover’s wiring by a sharp piece of composite has been eliminated. So, it can be seen that sending a probe into space is as important as sending an appropriate software, which must be flexible to many unforeseen circumstances.
This is the same attitude required for the European Rover Challenge (ERC): a competition that requires its contestants to be flexible and creative with their software programming skills because the martian environment is harsh and something can always go wrong.
In the remote formula at the European Rover Challenge, which is the biggest rover competition in Europe, teams will be tasked with remotely controlling and running their software on the rover, which will be waiting for commands on the biggest artificial Mars-yard in the world (located in Kielce, Poland). This approach will give all participants an equal chance to succeed. Each team approaches the competition with the same equipment: they will drive an identical rover, and they will have to demonstrate specific skills in software development, mission planning, risk management, teamwork, role division and task enforcement. Every team gets the same task and starts from the same place, having the same boundary conditions. There is no room for mistakes because, just like in the case of a real mission to Mars – no one will fly there to fix the rover or save it from trouble, and there is no room for random actions – similar to actual ESA or NASA missions, every move must be carefully planned, analyzed and tested.
Your software must be of the highest quality, even the smallest error can cause that rover programmed by you will be damaged and the mission will be terminated.
What is unique is that the ERC remote formula gives a chance to join the competition to the teams that have the competence but do not have specific resources to build their rover, or travel with it across the world to Poland. The winner of the competition will be the one who most reliably prepares the necessary software and demonstrates effectiveness in team management, reacting to critical situations and change management. “There is an undeniable satisfaction in knowing that the code you have prepared interacts with the outside world. That your software makes the space hardware move and perform tasks. However, your software must be of the highest quality, even the smallest error can cause that rover programmed by you will be damaged and the mission will be terminated. You must be extremely careful and your code must be free of errors. Your work is as important as any other in the project. Each team member is the most important one. The success of the mission depends on the whole team” – says Dr. Krzysztof Walas, Main Judge of the Remote Maintenance Task.
THE SOFTWARE AND THE CHALLENGE
Leo Rover is a compact four-wheeled rover produced by the Kell Ideas Company, on which every team in the remote formula will operate. It is equipped with a special payload to implement autonomy and perform tasks together. Leo is a prototyping robot that runs on a Raspberry Pi computer – the central unit of the rover. The LINUX (Ubuntu) system that the rover is set up with is running the ROS (Robot Operating System) and the software from the ERC’s partner – Freedom Robotics which allows easy remote control of the robot.
The ERC remote format consists of four tasks: Science, in which teams prepare and execute a simple science-driven exploration plan on the Mars-Yard; Navigation: in which Leo Rover is being navigated safely through Mars-Yard, visits all waypoints, and delivers dedicated probes to each of the waypoints; Maintenance: in which teams localize and turn off faulty elements of a device; Presentation, in which teams introduce themselves and present their projects in front of the jury.
The team has to be aware of what they can do and what is possible to do – this is the most important task for teams in the ERC remote.
To prepare for launch, the team must first familiarize themselves with the rover’s technical documentation and get access to software and a simulation environment to plan further steps in programming. From registration to the actual competition, crews will have the opportunity to take test drives 3 times to check the solutions they have prepared along the way.
by conducting the test drives, the organizers ensure that the competition is entered by groups that have well-thought-out mission concepts and have worked as a team. As Szymon Dzwonczyk, Head of the remote Jury Board says, “the team has to be aware of what they can do and what is possible to do – this is the most important task for teams in the ERC remote. Hardware can be created or adapted by preparing appropriate software. However, if you overestimate team’s capabilities, you will lose”.
At the beginning of the competition, each team can choose whether they want to upload their software or run the standard one delivered by the organizer. Later on, it will still be possible to upload additional software via the Internet, but this procedure will already be part of the task and will take up precious time. Uploading the software to the rover beforehand is, therefore, a safer option.
During the preparation for the competition, teams can test their concepts using a pre-configured simulation. This way, they can evaluate their software skills, operate the rover and analyze the differences between the simulated environment and real operation before each test drive.
This year’s test runs were held in June, July and in early August. There was an announcement about the teams which would have advanced to the competition finals on 9–11 September 2022.
Twenty-eight teams from around the world have registered for this year’s remote competition, out of 92 teams in total which wanted to attend ERC 2022 in an on-site or remote format. This includes teams from the UK, Colombia, India, Italy, Turkey, Germany, Egypt, Scotland, and Poland. Last year’s winner was a team from India – DJS Antariksh, which will also compete this year to retain its title. Eleven teams have passed the qualification process and will compete in ERC remotely from their universities.
Anything can happen during the competition, from poor management decisions to software errors, to “losing” the rover (which means being unable to steer it), like in a real planetary mission. And the final evaluation is complex, as judges of the competition rate specific tasks differently. They evaluate the execution, the concept, the preparation, and teamwork. Possible penalties may be given for accidental better than planned solutions. Luck does not mean competence.
The final goal of competition such as the ERC is to allow teams to gain useful experiences but also to enhance their creativity, which is a fundamental component in solving unpredictable problems during space missions. Looking at previous editions of the European Rover Challenge and following the development of those who competed before, we can see that these first small steps were the test trials for their giant leap into the future.
Maciek Mysliwiec is a Social Media and communication specialist in space sector. Press Officer at European Rover Challenge. Works for Planet Partners and Space Technology Centre of AGH University of Science and Technology.