Gabriele Ferri1, Alessandro Faggiani2, Tommaso Fabbri2, and Fausto Ferreira3
1RAMI 2022 Technical Director 2RAMI2022 Deputy Technical Director 3RAMI 2022 Head Judge, VP Workshops & Symposia
NATO-STO Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE) has been organising Student AUV Challenge – Europe (SAUC-E), the premier European student competition for underwater vehicles, since 2010. Over the years, we have been fostering the use of heterogeneous robots in our competitions. In SAUC-E we have given teams the possibility to deploy also marine surface vehicles, introducing tasks that required robot cooperation. In fact, only teams composed of cooperative heterogeneous robots can be effective in solving complex tasks in real world scenarios. This interest led CMRE to locally organise the euRathlon 2015 Grand Challenge at Tor del Sale power plant site (Piombino, Italy) in September 2015. euRathlon 2015 Grand Challenge, organised in the framework of the euRathlon EU project, was the first world’s multi-domain robotics competition. Disaster response tasks were proposed to teams composed of land, sea and air robots. The inspiration came from the Fukushima 2011 accident.
This formula of multi-domain competitions has continued with the European Robotics League (ERL) Emergency. ERL is a common framework for robotics competition funded by the European Union. ERL was launched in 2016 in three vibrant fields of robotics: industrial, service and emergency robots. The first season culminated with the ERL Emergency 2017, a multi-domain competition again locally organised by CMRE at the Tor del Sale power plant site in Piombino. ERL Emergency 2018 and 2019 took place again in La Spezia and were planned to take place in 2020 and 2021 but the COVID-19 pandemic made it impossible to have physical competitions.
For 2022, we have started a new competition named Robotics for Asset Inspection and Maintenance (RAMI). RAMI is part of the ERL Emergency League and is organised in the framework of the EU-funded METRICS project (https://metricsproject.eu/) aiming at addressing Inspection & Maintenance (I&M) tasks achieved in risky and/or hostile environments where human intervention is challenging or impossible, where direct link with an operator could not be guaranteed and where autonomous decisions are necessary to reduce operational time of the inspection tasks and ensure repeatability while maintaining an appropriate safety level for the mission. RAMI competition has events for aerial robots, organised by CATEC (Spain), and for underwater vehicles organised by CMRE. RAMI 2022 is the first RAMI event which we have conducted at La Spezia in July 2022.
CMRE hosted this year the RAMI 2022 robotics competition from 10 to 15 July after a two year interruption due to COVID-19 pandemic. The competition took place in CMRE water basin. The areas were prepared to simulate an Oil&Gas plant in a harbour connecting it to the general theme of the RAMI competition: inspection&maintenance (I&M). To support teams’ growth, we also proposed tasks similar to those present in ERL Emergency 2019.
Underwater robots were challenged to inspect a pipe structure, reach several waypoints and pass through a validation gate. In addition, several buoys of four possible colors had to be detected, localised and their colour recognised. A different action was requested of the teams depending on the buoy color: for instance, turning around the buoy in a clock-wise circle or stopping for 30 seconds increasing the depth. The objective was to force teams to integrate perception with adaptive mission planning in a realistic environment such as CMRE water basin. Finally, three manipulation tasks were added: staying into contact with the pipe, valve closing and picking up a stick bringing that to the surface in a controlled way. These tasks were the only ones allowed to be performed through teleoperation (ROV mode), while all other tasks had to be performed autonomously. As in the previous editions, the challenges were held at the CMRE waterfront sea basin, which is a sheltered harbor, providing participants with the opportunity to grapple with real-life sea conditions, including limited visibility and salty water, but within a safe, controlled environment. The limited visibility added severe difficulties to object recognition by AUVs, even if the targets were bright orange or red in color.
Nonetheless, several teams were able to tackle the tasks, achieving many goals. Out of the 4 marine teams registered, all tested their vehicles in the water. We tried to provide the teams as much time as possible to test their robots in the water basin. Only testing the robots in the water can allow teams to solve the technical issues and to prepare the robots for the proposed tasks. To support the practice at sea, a test arena containing the objects to be detected and one manipulation console was also prepared next to the competition area. This allowed the teams to collect data, for instance to acquire images of the colored buoys to train and test their classifiers.
We have noticed with pleasure that, despite the COVID-19, teams performance generally has grown over the past years. We have seen significant and steady progress in several teams and a constant look for improvement. The two top teams had accomplished several tasks, mainly in navigation, survey and manipulation. The rookie team managed to score some points as well. A fourth team had a significant hardware issue during the week that prevented full runs in the competition arena.
Figure 1 The new vehicle developed by AUV Team TomKyle..
Figure 2 (Left) Tomkyle detection and classification of a red buoy. (Right) An image of the manipulation console with a number to be recognised. The valve and the stick to be grabbed are visible.
The participant teams
This year 4 teams (of which one joint team by two universities) participated. Although initially more teams expressed their interest (including teams from the U.S.), uncertainty regarding COVID-19 travel restrictions made some teams cancel their participation. It is to be noted that after 2 years without competitions, some teams lost continuity as students graduate and there was no overlap between older generations and younger ones. This is why it is important to organise annual competitions, to support team participation and the succession with the required handover of experience. To start after the COVID-19 period, we think it is pivotal to involve people, to strengthen the community, contacting possible participants and sponsors. This year, we had the participation of two teams that had attended many of our past events. One team participated again in our events, after ERL17. A new team was also present. This was possible through a joint international venture, between two universities. This followed previous collaborations the two institutions had in the framework of the EUMarineRobots project, an EU-funded project aiming to make marine robotics infrastructures available to researchers for some specific projects. That team was mentored by a previous participant in SAUC-E 2012, which shows the virtuous circle of students participating in our events thatlater find a job in marine robotics and then become mentors. Of the competing teams, three had previously participated in our competitions, showing how ERL/SAUC-E is today a fixed appointment for several European research groups.
The participant teams were:
- AUV Team TomKyle; from the University of Applied Sciences of Kiel, Germany. This team has participated since 2014 in our competitions yearly.
- UNIFI Team; from the University of Florence, Italy. A veteran of our competitions (first participation in 2012).
- OUBOT; from the Obuda University, Budapest, Hungary. This team had participated in euRathlon 2015 and ERL Emergency 2017. In these competitions, they participated thanks to an AUV loaned by the organisation. This year, they participated with a robot they built.
- Black Pearl; from the University of Pisa (Italy) and Jacobs University (Germany). This team participated for the first time and included graduate students from Italy and undergraduate students from Germany.
RAMI 2022 was a hard-fought competition for the three days dedicated to three different Task Benchmarks (TBMs): Pipeline area inspection on Wednesday, Intervention on the pipeline structure on Thursrday and finally the Complete mission at the plant on Friday. AUV Team TomKyle and UNIFI Robotics Team challenged in the three TBMs, each one winning one TBM and having a draw in the Intervention on the pipeline. AUV Team Tomkyle was finally awarded with the first RAMI 2022 award, by evaluating the results in the three TBMs and considering the results in the presentation the teams gave to the judges about their robots.
The winners of the RAMI 2022 were:
- 1st Place – AUV Team TomKyle.
- 2nd Place – UNIFI Robotics Team
- 3rd Place – Black Pearl.
Other prizes awarded were:
- “Best Rookie Award” – Black Pearl.
- “Persistency Award” – OUBOT.
- “Best Presentation” – AUV Team TomKyle
Figure 3 Teams with their awards.
Figure 4 The winners with Gabriele Ferri.
The feedback from both the participants and the judges was very positive. Teams reported good results in tasks, which are becoming harder and harder every year in order to support the gradual growth of participant teams and to push in some cases the state of the art. At the same time, it is felt the need to keep or create some simple tasks for the newcomers. We will try to achieve this trade-off in the future, to be attractive both for new entries, and for more experienced teams, which require more challenging tasks for developing and testing their capabilities. The realistic scenario, which attract participants, is also central to involve end-users and companies. This year, for instance, we had one judge from SAIPEM and one from ROSEN group. Following previous feedback, during the assessment of team performance, more points were awarded to achievements involving autonomy. This is thought to push teams to focus on autonomy and advanced perception. Results of RAMI 2022 showed good performance for autonomous navigation, mapping, imaging and tele-operated manipulation, while further work is needed for real-time perception and autonomy. This will be addressed in next year’s competition. Furthermore, to develop teams’ perception skills and algorithms, a virtual RAMI challenge is ongoing. In the virtual challenge we provide teams with an underwater image dataset for developing image processing software. This is also important since in the underwater domain there is lack of available datasets for developing and validating new image processing algorithms
This year we had a large pool of judges and visitors coming from all over Europe and the U.S. We are pleased to thank IEEE OES, Italian Army, Italian Navy, SAIPEM (Italy), ROSEN Group (Germany), Robonation (U.S.), Office of Naval Research (ONR) (U.S.) and the H2O Robotics (Croatia) who provided exceptionally qualified judges, increasing the quality of the competition. Dr. Fausto Ferreira (University of Zagreb, Croatia), the OES VP for Workshops & Symposia, was the Head Judge and visited us in the framework of the IEEE OES committee Marine Autonomous Systems Competitions Coordination (MASC2), working globally to standardise student marine robotics.
The local community was also engaged. Local schools from the La Spezia area were also involved in the framework of Giona’s Project. This allowed around 20 students close to high school graduation to come and interact with the teams.
As in previous years, IEEE OES played a fundamental role as the Main Sponsor. One of the RAMI goals is to educate future multi-disciplinary engineers. Therefore, the sponsorship of ‘Breaking the Surface’ 2022, the 14th Interdisciplinary Field Workshop of Marine Robotics and Applications, is well aligned with our mission. The organisers of ‘Breaking the Surface’ provided 1 complimentary registration to the best rookie team, 1 to the best team and 1 to the second best. These students will have the opportunity to participate in the 14th edition of this multi-disciplinary and educational workshop that, since 2019, counts with the IEEE OES sponsorship.
As in the past, we had again the marine robotics commercial sector involved. Blue Robotics gave a Ping echosounder to the team that won the Persistency award.
Our aim is to continue to develop RAMI as a unique event that challenges teams with realistic conditions, with an emphasis on precise metrological evaluation. These achievements were made possible thanks to the fundamental support of IEEE OES and all our other sponsors. We thank all the teams, judges, presenters, visitors, staff and everyone involved, who made RAMI 2022 such a successful event.