If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again – a few words about the ERC test drives

Let’s take a closer look at the European Rover Challenge test drives and see what they’re for.

May 12, 2023


Aleksandra Szczepaniak

Leo Rover during the ERC test drive

In 2020, the European Rover Challenge introduced a remote formula of this international event. Since then, student teams from all over the world have been remotely taking part in the robotics contest. But this calls for a proper preparation of the competitors so that they get the hang of operating the competition robot online. This is where the ERC test drives come in.

About the ERC

The ERC, which stands for the European Rover Challenge, is a prestigious, international robotics and space event for university students, graduates, and researchers from around the world held annually in Poland. The core of the ERC is a planetary robots competition in which students participate with their rovers that have to tackle tasks like those performed during the real Mars or Moon missions.

ERC competition
Contestants’ rover on the ERC Mars yard
source: roverchallenge.eu

In 2020, the ERC competition was carried out in a new, remote formula, in which competitors from several continents remotely controlled a Leo Rover physically moving around a specially prepared artificial surface of the Red Planet located on the campus of the Kielce University of Technology. During the 2021 edition, the contest was held both in remote and on-site formulas.

When it comes to the remote formula of the event (see the article on the ERC 2021), the participating teams use a Leo Rover robot with proper equipment attached to it and are tasked with demonstrating their expertise in software development, mission planning, risk management and other soft skills. During the preparation phase of the competition, the teams are granted access to 3D models and technical documentation of the hardware, as well as basic software along with a simulation environment to use while working on the software. Before the actual contest, there are several drives before scheduled during which participants connect to the Leo Rover in the exact configuration used in the competition in order to test their solutions. And that brings us to the topic of this article.

The ERC test drives

The teams that are to participate in the remote formula of the ERC are offered several test drives to ensure their software works properly on the real Leo Rover robot and to familiarize themselves with its operation and configuration before the actual contest. The robot itself, as well as all the additional gear on it are exactly what the teams will use during the big event. This way, the participants can get a feel for how to handle the rover without actually holding it in their hands. This is especially helpful for new teams who might be a little unsure about how to work with the robot. Thus, the test drives help the participants get a grasp on what they’re dealing with and feel more confident going into the competition.

Before the ERC contest and the test drives, the participants run a Gazebo simulation in which they’re able to check out various aspects of the competition. The simulation never fully reflects reality, though. The test drives allow the contestants to verify whether what they have already tested in the simulation will actually work in the field. For example, they might find out that there's a communication delay that occurs between the operator and the rover. It’s very important to take this into account while navigating the robot around obstacles.

Another thing the teams learn during the test drives is that a stable and reliable internet connection is crucial for smooth operations. This is a key goal of these test drives for the competitors – to verify and, if necessary, correct things that may pose a problem during the contest. 

During the test drives, the participants are driving the rover on the terrain used in the previous year’s ERC. But right before the competition, the area is reconstructed so that the contestants won’t know how it’s going to be laid out in the contest.

The ERC Mars yard
The Mars yard from the ERC 2020 edition
source: https://roverchallenge.eu

For the ERC 2020, there were two test drives, but since the 2021 edition, there have been three of them.

The first test drive

Both in 2020 and 2021, the first of the several planned test drives took place at the Mars yard in Kielce which has been the venue for ERC since 2019. However, after seeing that a lot of new participants struggled to comprehend how the robot worked, much less operate it, we decided that navigating it on the “Martian” terrain would no longer be the case of the first test drive. That’s why in 2022, we carried it out at our office in Wrocław, saving us the trip to Kielce, and the test drive itself served just as an introduction to the rover allowing the teams, especially the new ones, to get a basic grip on the robot’s software, how to connect to it and get familiar with the vehicle. Driving the Leo Rover was possible but to a very small extent just so that the teams could get the hang of controlling it.

The second test drive

The second test drive has a much greater significance than the first one as it sets the bar higher. We expect the teams to upload their own software to the Leo Rover and be able to drive the robot across the Mars yard performing some of the competition's tasks. The second test drive is thus an opportunity for the contestants to evaluate their competence and readiness for the actual contest.

Leo Rover ERC test drive
Szymon from the Leo Rover team during test drives at the ERC Mars yard in Kielce, Poland

The third test drive

When it comes to the final test drive, it’s not much different from the second one. Having participated in the previous test drive, the teams are much better prepared for the last trial – they navigate the rover on the terrain correcting the mistakes that occurred during the second drive. Basically, the third test drive is like a dress rehearsal for the teams before the contest.

After the tests, Błażej from our team records rosbags, that is, all the communication that took place between the specific software nodes. He records the data that appeared there, and shares it with the teams. This information allows the contestants that don’t have the rover in their hands on a daily basis to understand properly what is happening inside the robot, how the communication works and what software is running.

Making Leo Rover the ERC robot

The ERCtest drives are an integral part of the remote formula of this renowned space competition. They give each participating team an opportunity to test both themselves and their software in the field before the actual competition. Thanks to them, the competitors get a foretaste of what to expect in the contest instead of flying blind.

Now that you’ve dived into details about the ERC test drives, why don’t you check out what the whole preparation for the contest looks like from our side? Go here to find out :).

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