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.

September 20, 2022


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 competition of planetary robots 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 the 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 the Leo Rover robot with proper equipment attached to it and are tasked with demonstrating their skills in software development, mission planning, risk management and other soft skills. During the preparation phase of the competition, the teams are given 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. There are scheduled test drives before the actual contest, during which participants connect to the Leo Rover in the exact configuration used in the competition to test their solutions. And that brings us to the topic of this article.

The ERC test drives

The teams that will participate in the remote formula of the ERC are provided with several test drives to have the opportunity to test their software on the real Leo Rover robot, operate it, check if everything works the way it should, and see what it all will look like during the actual contest. The Leo Rover robot the teams use for test drives is the same as the one for the contest, with all the necessary gear. This equipment is an integral part of the ERC set. This way, the participants are able to check what equipment they have at their disposal. The thing is, a lot of the teams, in particular, the new ones, have difficulties understanding what the rover is and how to handle it during the competition. They need to learn to use it without physically holding it in their hands, which is always problematic. Thus, the test drives help the participants have a grasp on what they’re working with and how to understand it.

Before the ERC contest and the test drives, the participants run a Gazebo simulation in which they’re able to see and check many things. A 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 realize 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 on the terrain so that it won’t fall over after bumping into an obstacle. If it does during the actual contest, the team will lose points.

Another thing the teams learn during the test drives is also the fact that they need a much better and stable internet connection to be able to perform everything properly. This is a basic goal of these test drives – to verify and, if necessary, correct things that may pose a problem during the competition. 

During the test drives, the participants are driving the rover on the terrain from 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

In 2020 and 2021, the first test drives took place at the Mars yard in Kielce where the ERC has been held since 2019. However, after seeing that a lot of new participants had difficulties understanding how the robot worked, let alone operating it, we decided that navigating it on the “Martian” terrain would no longer be the case of the first test drive. That’s why this year it functioned 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. For this reason, we carried out this year’s first test drive at our office which was enough for the drive’s needs, saving ourselves the trip to Kielce.

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. So, during the second test drive, the contestants can check their skills and readiness for the 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 last 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 functions as 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 makes it available to the teams. This information allows the teams 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 test drives are an integral part of the remote formula of the ERC. 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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