Meet Bangladesh's future Mars explorer
When Dr. Asharaful Amin, associate professor and chairperson of Computer Science and Engineering Department of Independent University, Bangladesh (IUB), started to teach Robotics as a minor course for undergrad students, he did not expect much from his students. "Study of robotics in Bangladesh is still in its infancy. Our software-based job market offers little for a robotics graduate. In the beginning, very few students wanted to take this course."
Thanks to these few pioneering students and Dr. Ashraf's passion for robotics, IUB's robotics research team called "Team Attendant" has garnered a remarkable glory for Bangladesh. In 2017, the team, for the first time, participated in the University Rover Challenge, the world's premier international robotics competition organised by the Mars Society, Protocase and Microsoft at the Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS) in the USA. At that time, they secured the second position among all Asian contestants and 10th position globally.
This year, with their robot capable of exploring treacherous and unknown Martian terrain, analysing its soil and weather and of accomplishing servicing and rescue tasks, the team achieved the first position among all the Asian participants and achieved 6th position globally. Dr. Ashraf, the mentor of the team, says, "We were elated to see that we defeated all the top engineering universities of India. We even outperformed many top global universities like Stanford University, University of Michigan, University of Toronto and Monash University, Australia."
The Team Attendant's robot is a four-wheeled, electric motor-powered vehicle, similar to the ones we see in movies. However, this indigenously built rover is based on an aluminium suspension frame, making it lightweight and cost-effective. The suspension frame was designed to endure the bumps and humps of rocky, uneven terrain with a full load.
This ingenious design enabled the team to equip the robot with communication and navigation module, a remote-controlled drilling machine for sample collection, a mobile laboratory to analyse the weather and soil sample and a robotic arm for rescue and repair operations- all within the strict weight limit of 50 kilograms only.
The team attendant's robot executed these tasks efficiently enough to be the champion in Asia and 6th in the world. However, manufacturing this complex device and participating in this competition was not an easy ride for Dr. Ashraf's team. Rashed, a member of the "Team Attendant says, "We had to procure most of the motors and circuits from Dholaikhal. We had to repair those time and again to ensure maximum efficiency during the test. We had no experience in designing a robotic arm and suspension frame. We had to learn these complex techniques mostly from the scratch."
Nevertheless, the most significant of their challenges was an acute crisis of funds. According to Dr. Ashraf, "Manufacturing this robot and taking it to the USA wasn't cheap. We had to invest a lot of our time in seeking sponsorship. At one stage, the fund crisis became so severe that for a month I had to leave my work for fundraising. Thanks to their determination, IUB, ICT Division of the Bangladesh government's Ministry of Posts, Telecommunication and Information Technology, City Group and Energis Power Corporation Limited, Bangladesh came forward to support the project. However, this came at a cost of invaluable time which could be utilised to make the robot more efficient.
This year, Team Attendant is again preparing for the contest with smarter and more sophisticated robot despite shortage of funds. "Armed with our two years of experience, we are now confident enough to compete for the global first position. We know our shortcomings and now we know how to solve those. However, still, we could not manage enough funds even to purchase the air ticket for our team members. If we can't secure funds within due time, I see no point of participating in the next contest," said a worried Dr. Ashraf.
This robot can be developed to perform tasks like automatic loading and unloading of heavy cargo, subterranean exploration like exploration and servicing operations in mines, detection, and deactivation of explosives and covert intelligence gathering tasks, Ashraf added. At this stage, all they need is a bit of support and patronisation to bring another glory for Bangladesh by taking the nation to the age of robots and space.