Gabriele Ferri1, Fausto Ferreira2
1ERL Emergency 2019 Director 2OES AdCom 2018–2020
NATO-STO Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE) has been organizing robotics competitions since 2010. The Student AUV Challenge—Europe (SAUC-E), the premier European student competition for underwater vehicles, started in 2006 and has been organized by CMRE since 2010. This is a realistic competition as it is set in CMRE’s sea basin in open water with real-life conditions: turbidity, tides and waves. Initially, this competition was dedicated to AUVs only, but since 2013, Autonomous Surface Vehicles (ASVs) could participate for collaborative tasks. One interesting aspect, and a way of promoting collaboration among teams, is that this task could be performed with an AUV and an ASV belonging to different teams. This could bring points for both teams and it was a way to push cooperation between heterogeneous robots and between teams. Along the years we have been increasing the complexity of the tasks, pushing for more autonomy and cooperative behaviors. Initially among marine vehicles, then since 2015 including other domains.
The experience gathered with the organization of SAUC-E led CMRE to be part of the euRathlon European Union (EU) project in which CMRE was the local organizer of the first world’s multi-domain (air, sea, land) robotics competition in 2015, the euRathlon 2015 Grand Challenge in Piombino, Italy. For the first time in the robotics world, a competition required aerial, marine and land robots to cooperate in tasks such as valve closing, finding missing workers or surveying an area. The euRathlon 2015 Grand Challenge was inspired by the Fukushima nuclear plant 2011 accident and simulated a disaster area after a tsunami. While SAUC-E required a team made of at least 75% students, euRathlon allowed the participation of teams coming from industry as, being a Grand Challenge, the goal was to push the state of the art in search and rescue robotics with a real-world Challenge never attempted before.
Following the success of the euRathlon project, CMRE was also part of the RockEU2 project (2016-2018) and locally organized the second multi-domain (air, sea, land) competition named European Robotics League (ERL) Emergency 2017 competition, again in Piombino (Italy). This was followed by the ERL Emergency 2018, a land and marine robotics competition in La Spezia at CMRE’s premises and by this year’s ERL Emergency 2019, again land + marine robotics competition. In addition to this, a land + aerial robotics competition took place in Seville, Spain in February 2019.
The European Robotics League (ERL) Emergency Robots is an outdoor robotics competition funded by the European Union in the framework of the SciRoc H2020 Project. After the success of RockEU2 project (2016-2018) and the initial launch of ERL in three vibrant fields of robotics—industrial, service and emergency robots—the ongoing SciRoc EU project is extending the ERL concept to the Smart Cities environment.
In each domain, there is a set of Local and Major Tournaments and teams are ranked in different Functionality Benchmarks and Task Benchmarks. The ERL concept is novel with respect to euRathlon and SAUC-E as it divides the competition in Functionalities and Tasks and allows for benchmarking through scoring. Besides the ERL tournaments in the three domains, the SciRoc project will organize also two Major Tournaments related to robots working in Smart Cities. The first one will take place in Milton Keynes, UK, in September 2019.
CMRE will host the annual European Robotics League (ERL)-Emergency 2019 robotics competition from 13 to 19 July, involving land and underwater cooperating robots. The teams’ selection is being finalized. Teams have to apply and produce a journal paper with a description of how they plan to tackle the different tasks. They can participate with both types of robots or come with only one domain and will be matched with another team. This process of match making, done by the organizers, fosters cross-fertilization and networking.
This year competition will be based on a Yacht accident in a harbour. This is to connect it to the Smart Cities theme. As in past years, the sea basin of CMRE’s premises will be used for the marine robots and its surroundings for land robots. This means that the limited visibility underwater makes object recognition by AUVs a very challenging task.
The Yacht accident scenario materialized in tasks similar to those presented in ERL Emergency 2017 and 2018. However, to push the advancement of the state of the art we have introduced new tasks or increased the difficulty level of others as in previous years. For instance, if in earlier SAUC-E, AUVs had to cross only one gate (formed by two buoys), last year we added two other gates that could change location from team’s run to the next team’s run. For the 2019 edition, in order to push real-time processing and autonomy, robots will have to move in a different pattern depending on the colour of which individual buoy. The aim of this task is to challenge the team adaptive mission planning and the robot reactive behaviors. As a competition taking place at sea with limited visibility, it is often hard to judge real-time processing/autonomy. While the organization installs a sonar that can show in real-time the positon of the vehicle, making the vehicle’s perform different movements depending on the buoy can help the difficult task of judging.
After passing through the buoys, the AUVs need to reach the disaster area and inspect the underwater pipelines. They also have to find the damaged pipe and communicate it to the land robot. An acoustic pinger also signals a leak in the damaged pipe. AUVs need to find the leak by finding acoustically the pinger. Another task that AUVs need to do is to search for a missing person underwater, represented by a realistic mannequin, as the accident and explosion threw some workers in the water.
For the land domain, typical search and rescue tasks are presented such as searching for a missing worker, area surveying and obstacle avoidance. Manipulation tasks are also included such as rubble removal, closing a valve to stop a leaking pipe on land and transporting a water bucket to put off a (simulated) fire.
Community Building and Impact
One of the important outcomes of the competitions that CMRE has been organizing for the past 10 years is the community building around the competition. This means to connect students and young engineers with companies and research institutions. While it is hard to measure this outcome, we have had many examples of students that later were hired by the competition’s organizers and sponsoring institutions/companies. Other students later became team leaders or judges, closing the loop and bringing a different perspective to the teams and judging. This community building has been done successfully for many years, mostly for the marine robotics domain and later extended to the land and aerial robotics domains. In the multi-domain competitions (land, aerial, sea), which are still unique in the robotics world, the effort is extended to disseminate robotics among the general public. Over 3000 people in total attended euRathlon 2015 Grand Challenge and ERL Emergency 2017 including the parallel programs with talks and demos dedicated to the general public including workshops for young children.
Most of all, competitions act, as well as an excellent opportunity for teams with limited access to sea, to test and develop their vehicles. Over the years, we have seen the evolution of several teams that have used the competition to test new algorithms and hardware. Not only, experimental results from the competitions have been published in conferences such as OCEANS, AUV as well as in journals. This is an excellent way of disseminating the knowledge and experience acquired by the teams’ participation and at the same time can show the competition’s benefit and the state of the art advancement over the years.
None of this would have been possible without the fundamental support of the Office of Naval Research Global (ONRG) and, since 2015, IEEE OES, which has been our Main Sponsor. The synergy has been explored with papers coming from the competitions being published in OES conferences and new student members signing in.
Many other institutions/companies participated in the past by offering internships, products as awards or discounts. In some cases, companies borrow products in beta release to get feedback from teams and improve their products, which is a win-win situation. For this year’s edition, we again welcome the sponsorship of ‘Breaking the Surface’ (BTS) 2019, the 11th Interdisciplinary Field Workshop of Marine Robotics and Applications and Blue Robotics. BTS 2019 will give out vouchers for free registrations while Blue Robotics will provide vouchers for their online store and an Echosounder as special award.
Finally, and as part of the community building, judges are an essential piece of the puzzle. We have had truly international events with judges coming not only from Europe but also from Asia and the U.S. This allows us to showcase the best of European robotics research to a wider audience and increases the exposure of teams to the international research community.
The IEEE OES committee Marine Autonomous Systems Competitions Coordination (MASC2) has been working globally to standardize student marine robotics competitions. One of the aims of MASC2 is to identify common tasks of interest for the marine community to be proposed in the different challenges. In this framework, there have been visit exchanges between ERL Emergency with other events, such as RobotX maritime challenge and the Singapore AUV Challenge (SAUVC). These relationships are crucial to create synergies between competitions around the world to improve their impact and their sustainability.