Five minutes with NASA Space Robotics Challenge finalists, Team Olympus Mons

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In a galaxy far, far away (PAL Robotics’ office), a team of engineers have been dealing with the aftermath of a dust storm on Mars… There’s never a dull moment here at PAL, and now aligning the orientation of a communications dish, deploying a new solar panel and fixing a leak in a Martian habitat can be added to the team’s ever growing list of skills.

A team of current and former PAL Robotics’ employees have somehow found the time to enter NASA’s Space Robotics Challenge – and after undertaking a series of challenging preliminary rounds, they’re now one of the 20 finalists. With little experience of NASA’s software, and up against 91 other teams comprised of some of the brightest minds in academia, industry and government from around the world, reaching the finals in January was a huge achievement in itself.

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The final competition will be held in a virtual environment that’s built to represent life on Mars, and teams must program a virtual robot, modeled after NASA’s humanoid Robonaut 5 (R5), to complete a series of tasks in a simulation. With only a month left to go, the team are working nights and weekends to complete the three challenges ahead of June 11.

You can follow their progress on Twitter.

We managed to grab five minutes with team lead, Victor Lopez, who filled us in on some of the highlights and challenges of the team’s foray into space.

  1. Why did you decide to get involved?

We’re all hugely passionate about robotics, so any chance to try new skills and use new software is massively exciting. The competition has also been a great learning experience because it has given team members a chance to work on issues (ie navigation, walking or grasping) that’s outside of their usual remit. We’re all geeks! So in many ways, this is the challenge of a lifetime. Who wouldn’t want to enter a competition run by NASA?

  1. Why is your team called OlympusMons?

Although we’re all current and former PAL Robotics employees, we’re now working in a wide variety of companies and backgrounds, so we wanted something neutral – and space related, of course! Olympus Mons is the highest volcano on Mars and the largest in the solar system. It is two and a half times the size of Everest (above sea level), which we felt was a very appropriate name as it often feels like a mountain of a challenge!

  1. What’s been your favourite moment so far?

Every time we reach a key milestone on a task it’s an exciting moment, as we’re one step closer to being able to successfully complete all three. But the moment we found out we’d qualified for the finals was particularly special – we hadn’t used R5’s software before, so we’re really proud to have got through to this stage. Our team is split into small groups, each working on a specific task or element, and it’s also been great to catch up with old friends and continue collaborating together.

  1. And the biggest challenge?

In order to simulate a realistic environment, NASA have added a 20 second delay to all communications – both to the robot and back to us – which makes everything harder to control. If the robot falls or performs an unexpected action, we won’t know until 20 seconds later. As a result, we’ve had to give the robot a great deal of autonomy and plan for all eventualities!

Because we’re not allowed to run our own ROS controllers on the robot, another big challenge has been to adapt the software we run on TALOS and REEM-C to go through the R5’s controllers. Learning how to use different tools and systems has definitely pushed us outside our comfort zones.

  1. What are the next milestones?

During the first week of June, we’ll have the opportunity to practice on the simulation. The final competition is the following week, so hopefully everything goes to plan or you will see some very tired, coffee-fueled PAL employees at the beginning of June! We have our own Twitter account, so keep an eye on our feed for OlympusMons’ news over the next few weeks.

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