This year’s edition of the international robotics competition, the European Rover Challenge, can be summed up as a record event in many respects: more than 400 constructors from six continents, two competitions formulas (separate for students and for professional teams), distinguished world astronautics icons gathered in one place, crowds of visitors and a large science and technology show zone.
The European Rover Challenge is the biggest robotics and space event of this kind in the world. Thisyear’s edition took place in Poland on 14-16 September at the Museum of Nature and Technology in Starachowice and was co-organised by the European Space Foundation, Starachowice Special Economic Zone, Starachowice county and Mars Society Polska. The honorary patronage over the event was taken by the European Space Agency, Polish Ministries of: Science and Higher Education, Entrepreneurship and Technology as well as Digital Affairs, the Poland’s National Centre for Research and Development, the Polish Space Agency, the Polish Space Industry Association and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
Double record of applications
There were 65 teams from 20 countries that qualified for the fourth edition of the ERC international robotics competition. They had three months to make a fully functional Mars rover modelled on the existing Curiosity Rover or the ExoMars Rover, which is to be deployed to Mars in two years. Ultimately, there were 400 constructors from six continents that met in the final competition in Poland, including a record number of competitors from Europe. The teams took part in four field competitions which aimed at demonstrating their Mars rover’s possibilities and how it could be remotely controlled. The best team this year was Impuls from Kielce University of Technology, followed by the team fromŁódź (Raptors from Lodz University of Technology) and the Canadian team,Robotics for Space Exploration from the University of Toronto. During the closingceremony there was also the jury’s awardpresented to the Czech team, RoverOva,from the Technical University of Ostrava, which made its debut at the ERC this year.
Best of the best
This year the competition was organised under the experienced eyes of the record number of jurors– as many as thirteen engineers and planetary geologists from the leading companies representing the Polish and international space industry followed rovers’ every move in the Mars Yard. The tasks that the teams had to perform were constructed in such a way that eliminated a luck factor and promoted those rovers that are able to perform tasks regularly and repeatedly:
- Science task – by using any technique a Mars rover was to take a soil sample from deeper layers of the Mars Yard and secure it for future testing;
- Maintenance task – the task took place not in the Mars Yard but in its close proximity (this year it was a large area next to a historic 19th-century furnace). The teams had to manoeuvre their Mars rover to complete a designated route towards the target – a machine – and perform a sequence of several operations, such as setting switches to the right position, making electric measurements, observing control panels;
- Collection task – in this task a rover had to complete a difficult route and get to a designated place, find an object weighing maximum 300 g, which had been hidden there, lift it up using a grabber and take it to the final destination;
- Traverse task – there were several tags with QR codes located in the Mars Yard. The team’stask was to make its rover go to the places marked on the map. This was undoubtedly the most difficult competition during ERC, which tested the rover’s autonomy. The teammembers couldn’t use the image from the rover’s camera. The only tool they had was a map;
- Presentation task – the teams had a limited time to present themselves, their project stages and the biggest challenges they faced while constructing the rover. They also had to be readyfor jurors’ questions.
Each team taking part in ERC consists of specialists in mechatronics, automation, robotics, autonomy, communication or navigation. This technological and scientific nucleus is surrounded by such equally significant electrons as the teams connected with administration (extremely important as far as commercial projects are concerned), team management, promotion and finances (acquiring grants for international travels, raising funds for building rovers and participating in competitions). The regulations of ERC and individual competitions – based on the guidelines of future space explorations by NASA and ESA (European Space Agency) – demand from its participants cooperation and complex problem solving, which means solving complicated problems from different scientific and technological fields. This is only one of many soft competencies that the contestants develop during the European Rover Challenge.
World astronautics icons
Like every year, ERC organisers made sure that the event was attended by special international guests. Poland was visited by such world astronautics icons as Tim Peake – British ESA astronaut, Gianfranco Visentin – Head of the Automation and Robotics Section at the European Space Agency, Maria Antonietta Perino – Head of Advanced Exploration Projects at Thales Alenia Space, or Valerio Moro – Head of the AOCS/GNC Department at Airbus Defence and Space. The competition was also followed by Artemis Westenberg, President of Explore Mars Inc., prof. Gerald Steinbauer and Willibald Stumptner, Directors of the Austrian Space Forum, as well as dr Grzegorz Brona, President of the Polish Space Foundation. A real friend of ERC, dr Robert Zubrin, founder of The Mars Society and author of Mars Direct, a proposal of a human mission to Mars, could not be missed in Poland as well.
The prestige of the European Rover Challenge, which is growing year after year, can best be seen on the example of Polish as well as international companies and institutions which decided to support the competition. In the fourth edition of ERC the group of partners was joined by such brands as AIRBUS Defence and Space – a part of the European AIRBUS consortium responsible for products and services in the space and defence industry, GK PGE – the biggest company in the power sector in Poland, and the Industrial Development Agency – a Polish entity which is strongly involved in projects promoting the space industry and applying technologies developed for the space industry in other areas of economy. The event was also supported by GMV Innovating Solutions, the biggest IT company in Poland, which specializes in the space sector, and SENER Polska – one of the most important Polish engineering companies in the space industry.
For ERC participants the possibility of taking part in the competition is an honour in itself. Still, in every edition organizers prepare attractive prizes for the teams who stand on the podium. The winners of this year’s edition of the European Rover Challenge will have an opportunity to take part in the prestigious analogue mission, AMADEE-2020, organized by the Austrian Space Forum in the Arabian Peninsula in 2020. The robot made by the Impuls Team from Kielce has become the official rover of this mission and the team members will be involved in the whole cycle of field missions in the Mars simulators. During the closing ceremony the main award was presented to the winning team by Willibald Stumptner – Director of the Austrian Space Forum responsible for the AMADEE-2020 mission. Moreover, the winners also received financial and material prizes sponsored by the event partners. These included a cash prize from the European Space Foundation, books with Tim Peake’s autograph, a tool set from Hikoki, a voucher for 3D prints from Sinterit, as well as devices from DPS Software.
The biggest science and technology show zone in history
The fourth edition of ERC attracted almost 25,000 visitors. In the science and technology show zone they could see numerous shows and scientific presentations about the space and the benefits coming from space exploration. People visiting
ERC in Starachowice were offered such attractions as presentations of race robots, designing instruments for space missions and 3D printing, instructional workshops in building a rocket and a comet, self-parking car shows, drone simulator flights and VR glasses presentations. Throughout the whole event there was also MARS 2030 exhibition available – a living space for manned spacecrafts project created by the Faculty of Industrial Design at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. Above all, visitors could follow teams competing with one another which – as Artemis Westenberg said in her interview for RMF FM – is a great advantage of this event: I like the fact that the public can watch it really up close and find out what dealing with all these technical issues is like. People can also see what scientific researches are all about and how much effort they require. They can find out that it’s not so nice and easy as it sometimes seems on a TV screen. This is really hard work and the public can see it here and find out how much sacrifice it requires. I think it can be especially inspiring for kids – it shows that people can enjoy their work, even if it’s very difficult.
First challenge for the public
In the fourth edition of the European Rover Challenge a competition for the public – organized for the first time in the history of ERC – was very popular. By remotely controlling small Earth rovers participants had to maneuver them through an obstacle course. The challenge for the public was organized by Kell Ideas, which makes and distributes an Earth rover called Turtle Rover on global markets. The President of the company is Szymon Dzwonczyk – former captain of the Scorpio team which won the first edition of the European Rover Challenge in 2014. Asked about the greatest benefits of taking part in ERC he stresses a comprehensive character of this event: the challenge allowed me to define the direction I want to move towards professionally. Business partners and mentors met during the workshops helped me find a technological niche and verify my ideas against the realities of actual business. I met great people who made up the Scorpio team with me and we still work together. This is how the foundation of the company and executing the project were built. If it wasn’t for ERC we wouldn’t achieve our success.
PRO formula’s successful debut
PRO formula, which the organisers introduced this year, has also turned out to be a success. For the first time in the history of the European Rover Challenge professional constructors of Mars rovers could come to the event and take advantage of the Mars Yard infrastructure to check how their rovers behave in the conditions similar to those on the Red Planet without competing.
Mentoring on the highest level
Traditionally, the fourth day of the European Rover Challenge was closed to the public and devoted to mentoring. On this day the teams took part in workshops and lectures delivered by experienced representatives of companies and institutions from the space and space-related sector such as AIRBUS, SENER, GMV and the Poland’s Industrial Research Institute for Automation and Measurements. Piotr Weclewski – the head of jurors – summed upthis year’s edition of ERC by pointing out how tasks and skills gained during the challenge could help its participants build their careers in the space industry. Artemis Westenberg from the non-profit organization called Explore Mars Inc. suggested where to look for support – also financial one – in realizing one’s own ideas, and Kamil Grassmann from SENER presented a life cycle of space projects considering classification and necessary procedures. A lecture delivered by Krystyna Macioszek from GMV entitled Flight Software engineering process and technologies used in spacecraft was very enthusiastically received. She talked about such issues as the requirements and role of standardization in creating aircraft software for the space industry, designing, implementing and evaluating such a software as well as a wider perspective on future architecture of space systems. After the workshops part interested contestants could go on a study visit to the Starachowice Special Economic Zone and meet with the representatives of the leading companies from the ceramic and automotive industry.
Part of the success of the international robotics competition, the European Rover Challenge, was also consistent and long-term communication strategy. According to the adopted promotion line, ERC was presented in the media in the context of growing the Polish space industry, space technologies commercialisation (trend Space 4.0) as well as a platform to shape young employees for the space sector. Communication activities with regards to promoting the competition resulted in more than 1,000 publications in the media around the world as well as nearly 100,000 activities in social media.
The first continuous live transmission in the history of ERC has been watched by 41,400 people so far and during the streaming there were more than 37,000 comments. The total watching time has been 165 days and 14 hours so far.
Comments on ERC
The potential and popularity of ERC has been noticed, among others, by the European Space Agency, which regularly supports this project (also content-wise), Polish government, which mentions the challenge as a specific objective in the Polish Space Strategy as the source of future specialists for the space sector, as well as the Polish Space Agency, which resulted in the competition being included in the priority National Space Programme. This is why during the conference inaugurating the fourth edition of the European Rover Challenge Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Science and Higher Education, Jarosław Gowin, announced ERC in the following way: the competition that is just about to take place is a great opportunity to educate and shape employees [for the space industry – editorial note]. The challenge participants have gained and will gain many hard competencies which are very much needed in the economy based on modern technologies but they will also acquire many soft competencies required in the world which is more and more complex and changes dynamically. A serious character of the Mars rovers challenge was also highlighted during the opening ceremony by the British astronaut, Tim Peake: It’s not only a game or play but work which brings innovative ideas that can be used by space agencies to build future rovers one day. Grzegorz Brona – President of the Polish Space Agency – summed up ERC as an event which Poland can be proud of and which can play a crucial role in negotiating Poland’s access to the PER ASPERA UE consortium and getting European funds for developing innovative Polish space projects, especially those connected with robotics.