Accu Supports IPRL Team At European Rover Challenge
What is the Imperial Planetary Robotics Lab?
The Imperial Planetary Robotics Lab (IPRL), is a new student team formed at Imperial College London in 2022. Their mission is straightforward: “To give students the space and resources to gain experience in planetary exploration.”
The lab aims to foster collaboration among students from diverse backgrounds, including engineers and scientists, to work together on challenging projects that bring them closer to contributing significantly to this cutting-edge field.
First Year, First Challenge
In their pursuit of supporting students, the IPRL identified the need for resources and experience. Thus, the goal for the first year was set: reach the world finals of the renowned planetary robotics competition - the European Rover Challenge - held in Poland from 15th to 17th September 2023.
The challenge demanded the creation of a custom, 50kg remote controlled and semi-autonomous rover which had to complete a series of tasks on a specially prepared Mars Yard in Kielce, Poland.
The primary focus was to replicate, as closely as possible, a real scientific planetary mission. This entailed preparing a comprehensive geological analysis of the Mars Yard, proposing a scientific plan for the rover (including its path, capturing images, and collecting samples) and subsequently executing the mission and analysing its outcomes.
Competing at ERC 2023: The Tasks
The IPRL team faced the following four challenges when competing at the European Rover Challenge:
1) Science Task (largest ERC task)
The team had to geologically analyse the Mars Yard from drone images and limited information provided prior to the competition. Each team then had to come up with a hypothesis about the geological past of the area. Next, the teams had 45 minutes to execute their exploration plan and traverse the Mars Yard, take pictures, acquire samples and launch the drone wherever they needed. Equipped with the data, the team had to report whether their hypothesis was correct or not, and thoroughly justify their decision.
2) Presentation Task
The team had to prepare a whole presentation on how the rover and the team work and justify their design decisions in front of a panel of judges and professionals from the space industry. The presentation phase was then followed with a rigorous questioning session, testing each team’s reasoning and approach to presented challenges. IPRL scored first out of all teams winning the Best In Presentation Task Award.
3) Maintenance Task
This task tested the rover’s arm dexterity. The team had to remotely approach a panel of switches and sockets and, only relying on sensor data and remote camera feed, precisely control the arm to perform various tasks such as plugging in loose cables, measuring voltage and pressing switches in required order.
4) Navigation Task
This task tested the rover’s driving system. A team of judges came up with waypoints that the team had to quickly reach with their rover, in order to hit strict time markers. Again, the rover operators could not see the rover directly, and had to solely rely on data sent wirelessly. This was complicated even further by the strict 20 minutes available time given to complete the task.
How well did IPRL perform at the 2023 European Rover Challenge?
In spite of it being IPRL’s inaugural year competing at the European Rover Challenge, they not only qualified for the world finals as the sole UK team but also won one of the four main competition tasks.
This feat helped them secure 11th position (out of 25 globally), all achieved with a significantly smaller team and budget compared to neighbouring teams in the ranks.
“It is a great achievement, because our aim this year was ONLY to qualify for the finals and yet we have achieved so much more with so little”
- Filip Szczebak, IPRL Manager
The Rover ‘Harbinger’ and Accu’s role in the challenge
For the competition, IPRL created their first rover - the Harbinger. Aimed to compete against teams with many more years of experience and given the tight timeline, the team’s goal was to design the simplest and most reliable machine capable of competing in the challenge. This was crucial to establish a robust foundation for future iterations.
One of the IPRL’s main requirements was that each part had to be replaceable within 20 minutes by using field equipment. Thus the team decided to use threaded fasteners for nearly the entire design.
The fasteners needed to be of high durability considering the challenging terrain and facilitate the quick assembly/ disassembly cycles the rover had to face. Accu was a clear choice as the supplier, with their strong brand reputation, high quality components and very quick lead-times.
“The range of products Accu had to offer really allowed us to thrive in freedom of design”
- Otter, Head Arm Engineer
With the support of Accu, the Harbinger was equipped with high-quality and highly reliable fasteners, aligning seamlessly with the team’s design ethos.
Accu also found itself amidst the pre-competition frenzy, fulfilling urgent priority, last-minute orders to ensure the Harbinger could be assembled to a good standard in time. The meticulous work paid off when the Harbinger surpassed expectations during the competition trials.
"Accu were the first to reach out with a helping hand to us as our first sponsor"
- Jimin, Driving System Engineer
What’s next for the Imperial Planetary Robotics Lab?
The team will now be collating the lessons learned from the competition and implementing them in the next iteration of the rover. The team's current objective is to secure the 8th position globally and the 5th position in the science task.
The plan is to redesign the suspension and add steering capability to the rover. Moreover, the arm will be getting a major overhaul based on the lessons learned from attending the ERC 2023.
IPRL also envision expanding their projects, engaging more students and ideas, and broadening their scope towards engineering research focused on planetary robotics. A new major project under consideration is the cometary lander project, which will be investigating new ways of landing on small solar system bodies, hopefully allowing IPRL to publish and present themselves at technical conferences in upcoming years.