When you mention the words, Mars, rover and AI (artificial intelligence) – it grabs peoples’ attention.
When you hear those words over a beer or two with a couple of colleagues who are actually working on a Mars rover project – it grabs your attention.
It was late 2018 when this conversation with the Melbourne Space Program (MSP) took place and that’s when the Monash Nova Rover team (MNR) identified the mutual need for extra help with the autonomous systems on their space exploration Mars rover called Wombat. From here the collaboration began.
The team from MSP are Jack McRobbie, Nina Averill (who were original members of the ACRUX-1 team), Emily Kuo and Andrew Stuart from MNR.
The MSP was keen to help MNR build the capabilities of a rover that is suitable for outer-space exploration. With that, the team developed an autonomous software system to safely navigate the rover between waypoints in a hostile environment.
“MSP has led the creation of our autonomous systems and assisted our members in upskilling in the autonomous field”, Henry Lourey team leader for Monash Nova Rover Team explained.
This is the second year that MNR and MSP were partners in the University Rover Challenge (URC) where the intention was to enter Wombat.
Above: simulation of Wombat. Credit: Jack McRobbie, MSP
“The first collaboration was in 2019 and we found the competition was beneficial to us both, and we decided to continue the partnership into 2020”, said Lourey.
URC is the world’s premier robotics student competition which takes place annually at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah, USA. The ultimate goal of the competition is to design and build a rover that would be of use to early explorers on Mars.
Above: MSP team with Wombat. Image credit Monash Nova Rover
The basics of the competition are similar to the tasks performed by a NASA rover. These range from being able to pass through terrain to detecting any signatures of life in soil samples.
But unfortunately, this years’ competition has been cancelled due to the COVID-19 outbreak. However, only last week MNR had learnt that they received their System Acceptance Review (SAR) Results for 2020 and had the competition gone ahead they would have been invited to participate in URC2020. This is a great result for everyone involved as it is confirmation they are on the right path! 2021 will be an exciting year.
So, with this, we chatted with Jack McRobbie from MSP and Emily Kuo from MNR who worked on this project and asked them some questions.
Jack is the project lead for AI & Robotics Division at MSP. His role, and specifically for the rover collaboration, is fluid. It generally tends to consist of part project manager and part senior engineer.
Emily is the software lead of the MNR team, her main role is to communicate with other sub-teams in terms of what they need and oversee the integration of hardware so that everything is operational onboard the rover, and controllable from the base station.
What did you hope to get out of from this unbelievable experience?
Jack: "After working on ACRUX-1, I wanted to learn more about the emerging field of AI and intelligent robotics. My principal goal was to become as well versed in robotics algorithms and techniques as I was familiar with CubeSat development. Besides that, the project is very exciting, and I get a lot of personal satisfaction out of these projects and that is a constant driver for whatever I work on, this project was no different".
Emily: "I've already gained many things from the year or so I've been on the team. Of course, there's all the practical experience like being able to apply knowledge gained from university and understanding the context behind it; but more than that, on the Nova Rover team I've been able to work alongside some many amazing people and improve my abilities while contributing to something very worthwhile. Looking back on it, those memories will be the ones that last the longest."
With the competition cancelled for this year what are your next steps?
Jack: "We will likely continue development and test what we can in simulation, the project remains an engaging software-based problem. MSP also will be launching a few new projects under the umbrella of the AI & Robotics division, so I'll be working on those as well. Obviously, with the competition being cancelled was disappointing but not unexpected. The main goals of learning and technical development remain achievable though, even without the competition. So, we will be looking to continue to achieve MSP's mission through our work."
Emily: "As a whole team, we plan to take it in stride and see what we could gain from what might be an otherwise disheartening situation; time being the main thing. We will re-evaluate ways to improve, to experiment, and to tinker on new things we couldn't usually do with the quick turnover for a yearly competition. Although on the software team, there are still many developments we can proceed with remotely."
In conclusion, MSP would like to thank the MNR team for the experience our volunteers have gained and to be part of this fantastic opportunity.