Press Release

ERC 2020 Mars Rover Competition

By SpaceRef Editor
September 8, 2020
Filed under , ,

The Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc across all branches of the economy worldwide; leaving some of them profoundly impacted for the foreseeable future. The space industry has not been insulated from the virus either and some Space 4.0 start-ups have declared bankruptcy. The most important events of the space year were at best rescheduled and at worst canceled indefinitely. What brings a little consolation is the fact that the companies whose employees could work from home made that shift quite effortlessly. And that makes sense seeing as remote work and the space sector go hand in hand.

In March 2020, NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover mission team photographed themselves on their first day of working remotely from home. It could not have been an easy transition given how quickly it happened. But Curiosity was waiting on the Red Planet ready to be operated so what else could NASA engineers do? ‘The show must go on’ – they must have thought while setting up their new home office station.

In September, nearly 400 young and ambitious engineers from all around the world will share a very similar experience to the one Curiosity team encountered a few months ago. While staying in their countries they will take part in the grand finale of the sixth edition of the international Martian rover competition called ERC Space and Robotics Event. Between the 11th and 13th of September 2020, the contestants will participate in the competition; remotely navigating the mobile robot on the biggest artificial Martian field in the world, located in Poland. The MarsYard is designed to resemble the Jezero Crater, the exact location of the landing of NASA’s Perseverance rover next year.

47 teams have submitted their application in the registration process of ERC 2020. Based on the technical documentation they sent, the jury qualified 33 teams from 14 countries to move on to the final stage of the competition. Next month, the teams will compete in two field tasks using an innovative remote-robot management platform delivered by an American start-up from Silicon Valley and mobile inspection robots built by a Polish company. Field tasks will include collecting samples from the MarsYard as well as performing a sequence of operations at the target machine located on the Martian field. 

The teams will control the robots equipped with a navigation system based on wheel odometry (the use of data from motion sensors to estimate how far the rover has traveled) and IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit) which is a combination of an accelerometer and a gyroscope. Moreover, participants will have two cameras at their disposal, including a stereovision one that simulates human binocular vision and therefore gives the ability to perceive depth. That will help teams estimate the distance to various checkpoints and obstacles. However, in order to use that feature teams need to prepare their own software prior to the competition. The more autonomous their rover is, the bigger the chance of successfully completing the tasks and moving higher in the final ranking. The ERC competition has always been a unique challenge – both in engineering and programming. Remote simulations are a standard of the space industry and most certainly the future of the robotic sector. We are very excited that the new formula of our tournament brings us even closer to the way the high-tech sectors test their new solutions on a regular basis. In that sense, the global pandemic didn’t force us to change the logistics of the competition, it merely accelerated what we have thought about for a long time – explains Lucas Wilczynski, the founder and main organizer of the ERC competition.

SpaceRef staff editor.