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Graduate student flying a drone outside in the desert in Abu Dhabi.
Haseeb Chaudhry (left), a doctoral student studying mechanical engineering, and Vihan Talur, a master’s student studying computer engineering, watch their drone while running tests at a site near Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.

Autonomous robots in the desert

An interdisciplinary, cross-cultural Virginia Tech team and their autonomous vehicles journeyed to Abu Dhabi for an exclusive worldwide competition.

Last winter, a team of engineering graduate students regularly ventured out to Virginia Tech’s Kentland Farm. They’d drive past fields of cows and farmland until they reached a small garage and strip of asphalt.

It’s here they’d unload a set of autonomous vehicles: several drones and a ground vehicle. They’d place markers made of tape and tarps on the concrete and set up their laptops and equipment. And then they’d get to testing.

By March, they’d trade the cold winds of a Blacksburg winter for the dry heat of the desert.

A student sits inside a truck where he is working on coding at a computer. The truck has a side window that overlooks a field and concrete slab covered in white markings and tape.
Mickey Cowden, a master’s student studying computer engineering, sits inside the Unmanned Systems Lab van at Kentland Farm while running tests on Team VICTOR's drones in anticipation of MBZIRC.

Members of this interdisciplinary group, known as Team VICTOR, competed against top universities in the international, inaugural Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge (MBZIRC), held in Abu Dhabi March 16-18, 2017.

The $5 million competition aimed to catalyze the development of autonomous robotics. Virginia Tech’s Team VICTOR was one of 25 teams out of 143 applicants from around the world invited to compete, and one of 15 to be sponsored by Khalifa University, the competition organizer.

The team began preparations a year out, in spring 2016. They were tasked with designing vehicles capable of completing a series of ambitious tasks requiring the use of autonomy.

“MBZIRC introduced a very challenging goal for roboticists, and basically the robots needed to fly autonomously and get to the target in a natural environment,” said Tomonari Furukawa, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and advisor to Team VICTOR. “This is very, very difficult. We're not one to lose an opportunity, so we wanted to participate in a challenge.”

Team VICTOR fully designed their vehicles for the competition, including five unmanned aerial vehicles, nicknamed Bogey 1 through Bogey 5, and an unmanned ground vehicle nicknamed TREX.

After a full day of travel from Washington, D.C. to Abu Dhabi, the team arrived and set up their allocated tent on the Yas Marina Circuit campus, home of the Middle East’s second Formula 1 racetrack. For nearly a week before the start of the competition’s trial days, the team worked through nights, constantly tweaking their vehicles and running tests.

“I hadn't done an all-nighter in like probably 10 years, and I did three in a week over there,” said Mickey Cowden, a master’s student studying computer engineering from Southwest Virginia who worked on the autonomy software for the UAVs.

Virginia Tech was one of four American teams to attend MBZIRC and one of two American teams that chose to participate in all four challenges, which required the use of both aerial and ground vehicles.

For the first challenge, the team’s unmanned aerial vehicle had to locate, track and land on a moving vehicle — in this case, a roving golf cart. In the second challenge, the team’s unmanned ground vehicle had to locate and reach a panel and then physically operate a valve stem on the panel. The third challenge required multiple unmanned aerial vehicles to collaboratively search, locate, track, pick up and place a set of static and moving objects. And lastly, during the grand challenge, the team was tasked with completing all of the above at the same time.

Abu Dhabi’s desert atmosphere was an additional obstacle. Dust and wind would occasionally halt the competition throughout the two days of practice testing, as well as the following days of competition, and presented a complication for the cameras and sensors on vehicles.

Two students wearing white polo shirts work on a drone inside a staging area.
Luan Doan, a Ph.D. student studying mechanical engineering, and Chaudhry assess their drone during MBZIRC.
Graduate student working on an autonomous robot
Tamer Attia, a doctoral student studying mechanical engineering, works on Team VICTOR's ground vehicle from inside the team's tent at the competition site on Yas Island.

MBZIRC aimed for the competition to test the limits of autonomous robotics to inspire further development in the rapidly growing field. The technology demonstrated could later be used in services like autonomous delivery, warehouse and industrial automation, improved search-and-rescue missions, transportation, and navigation.

After three intensive days of competition, Team VICTOR earned an eighth-place finish in the first challenge and a spot as one of 14 teams in the grand challenge competition of MBZIRC.

While Furukawa said the team didn’t perform as they’d hoped, they still achieved their goals set prior to attending. Namely, they completed competition challenges, provided a learning opportunity for more than a dozen students who were part of Team VICTOR, and showcased Virginia Tech talent on an international stage.

“Virginia Tech has been traditionally strong in the autonomous systems and robotics, and certainly this was a chance for us to just show our capabilities,” Furukawa said.

Urvi Desai, a student, works on a ground vehicle. She is using a mouse and keyboard and focusing intently on the equipment.
Urvi Desai, a master’s student studying electrical engineering, runs tests on the ground vehicle.

It was also an opportunity to work across cultures.

The home countries of the 11 students on Team VICTOR who traveled to Abu Dhabi spanned the U.S., Japan, Egypt, Pakistan, Vietnam, South Korea, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and India.

What’s more, Team VICTOR formed a partnership with University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) to bring in their expertise in autonomous systems.

As part of the collaboration, UTS sent Janindu Arukgoda, a master’s student from Sri Lanka studying autonomous systems and robotics in UTS’ Centre for Autonomous Systems, to Virginia Tech in November 2016. Following the competition, Arukgoda returned to Australia.

“It has been an interesting period of time for me personally, working with experts from multiple domains, sharing knowledge, and learning from each other,” Arukgoda said following the competition. “This exposure gave me insight into the life and likes of American postgraduate students, and so many Hokies went out of their way to make me feel at home in Blacksburg.”

Close up of two pairs of hands working on a drone. One uses a drill.
Chaudhry and Doan work on the hardware of one of their drones.
A close up of a drone, with a desert horizon in the background.
The unmanned aerial vehicles, known as Bogeys, competed in three portions of the competition.
Two students working at a computer to fly a drone
Changkoo Kang, a master’s student studying aerospace engineering, and Cowden help run tests from their computer setup at a test site near Dubai.

Ultimately, having a team composed of students from across the world benefited the research.

It’s something Furukawa himself has enjoyed throughout his decades-long career. Furukawa started his studies in his home country of Japan, before pursuing his doctorate in Australia — with the same professors who joined Team VICTOR from University of Technology, Sydney — and finally landing in the U.S. at Virginia Tech.

Each country provided unique insight for Furukawa’s research in robotics: humanoid robotics is preeminent in Japan, Australia has field robotics, and the U.S. is strong in autonomous robotics.

“After I came to the states, there was a chance of merging all of the technologies that I have developed in the past,” Furukawa said. “MBZIRC was also a great chance for me to demonstrate my technology because the competition involves manipulation, which is more from a humanoid robotics side, and also the drones and the UGVs, which are very field robotics oriented.”

Team members celebrating a success in control tent
The team celebrates during the grand challenge portion of MBZIRC as their ground vehicle accomplishes its task of turning a valve stem.
Student posing with a drone in a drone cage in front of stands where onlookers watch the competition.
Doan sets up a drone inside the arena. The outdoor location of the competition was not immune to the dusty winds of Abu Dhabi, presenting a challenge for participants and their vehicles' sensors.

Haseeb Chaudhry, who grew up in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan before coming to the U.S. for his doctorate, knows a thing or two about the value of working internationally. Some countries, the mechanical engineering Ph.D. candidate has found, have easier access to resources than others.

“Engineering is the same everywhere. What is different more often than not are the resources that are involved,” he said.

In Pakistan, during his undergraduate degree, he was often forced to think far outside of the box due to much stricter, limited resources. Here, he finds that, while labs are still funding-hungry, most of the time he and his labmates can order what they might need from the online shopping warehouse, Amazon, and have the parts shipped right to their doors.

“Traveling to Abu Dhabi for such a competition brought teams from all around the world who sort of showed their ingenuity with all the resources they had access to,” said Chaudhry, who worked on the UAVs for competition and researches drone security systems.

Team VICTOR was able to acquire the necessary equipment and travel to Abu Dhabi through sponsorships from MBZIRC competition organizer Khalifa University, Yoshimitsu Saito of Japan-based company NetSmile, the General Motors Foundation, and Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech alumni and spouses Adam Rossi, a civil engineering major, and Laila Rossi, a business major, also contributed to the team on behalf of their venture capital and private equity company, Indie. The Rossis, also graduates of Pamplin College of Business’ M.B.A. program, attended the competition with their three children and watched Team VICTOR compete from the stands.

“A lot of the research that we do would not be possible without the generous support from our sponsors,” Chaudhry said. “So to the Rossi family [specifically], I just want to say thank you for sponsoring us … and we liked that we had our own cheering section of the crowd.”

Three kids and two adults posting in front of a Team VICTOR banner
Virginia Tech alumni and spouses Adam Rossi, a civil engineering major, and Laila Rossi, a business major, attended the competition in Abu Dhabi with their three children.
Students and professors gather for a group photo in front of a blue wall with their two drones and a ground vehicle positioned in front of them.
Team VICTOR was composed of several professors and over a dozen students from both Virginia Tech and University of Technology, Sydney.
Three people wearing gray shirts that read "Virginia Tech" in orange and maroon laugh together while sitting in blue stands.
Desai and brothers Alan and Brian Lattimer watch while the drone team competes. Alan and Brian work at JENSEN HUGHES, Inc., and played a vital role on the team with their expertise.

Through the sponsorships, ten Virginia Tech graduate students and Arukgoda, from University of Technology, Sydney, were able to attend the competition. Several other University of Technology, Sydney graduate students met up with the Virginia Tech team in Abu Dhabi.

On the Virginia Tech side, Team VICTOR was composed of graduate students from mechanical, industrial and systems, aerospace and ocean, and electrical and computer engineering, and three undergraduate students from industrial and systems engineering and mechanical engineering. Additionally, the team collaborated directly with companies JENSEN HUGHES Inc. and Cowden Technologies LLC.

Since returning from Abu Dhabi, Team VICTOR has had their work cut out for them.

Changkoo Kang is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Virginia Tech in aerospace engineering from South Korea. At the time of the competition, Kang was working on completing his master’s degree, also in mechanical engineering. Kang attributes his participation in MBZIRC with focusing in his research on unmanned aerial vehicle visual tracking.

“It was the start of my profession,” he said. “I said I learned so many things from [MBZIRC], and it was a competition so ... I learned so many practical things from the competition.”

Kang was an author on two publications as a result of the competition, but said he grew outside of the realm of robotics as well.

“I learned so many technical things from the competition, but at the same time I learned cultural things from our teammates,” Kang said. "It was a great experience to work with people from all over the world and we could exchange our experience from other countries."

Two students stand smiling side-by-side, arms crossed, in front of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, which is tall, white, and topped with oval steeples.
Kang and Attia pose in front of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.
Two students looking out the window of a tall building overlooking the city
Chaudhry and Desai peer out over the landscape of Abu Dhabi from the Capital Gate skyscraper.
Group of five students posing for a photo in the city
Team VICTOR stopped by the campus of Khalifa University, which organized the event and was a helpful collaborator to Team VICTOR during the competition.

Meanwhile, Tamer Attia, a Ph.D. student in mechanical engineering from Egypt, has been hard at work rebuilding the unmanned ground vehicle.

The new vehicle is a novel invention blending rough terrain maneuverability with two hand-like grippers and improved functionality.

“This competition gave me a good push to ... work on my research actually,” Attia said. “That's why I investigated and designed and built a new UGV for my research to work in rough terrain, with more capability, with active suspension, active traction, with more performance, more stability.”

A student taking a picture of the ceiling in an ornate marble and gold interior
Kang stops to photograph the ornate ceiling of the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi.

All of this is in anticipation for MBZIRC 2019, which Furukawa aims to attend. They’ve already been invited to submit their application again.

“We are in a very good position to pursue the next challenge, and of course we would like to advance our technologies in this field so we are determined to challenge for the next competition, MBZIRC 2019,” Furukawa said.

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