One Hundred Gears of Solitude: From car to CAD

Edited by Rohini Dikshit

Design by Siri Chandana and Prashanth

When the institute shut down on the 17th of March, 2020, little was known about what the future would look like. Initially thought to be a simple two-week vacation that would serve as a welcome relief when quizzes were just around the corner, the reality of the situation didn’t set in until much later. Before anyone knew it, two months had passed, and there were still no signs of the situation improving.

While theoretical classes gradually moved online, practical activities had to be put on hold. As a corollary, CFI competition teams found themselves unable to function normally, away from their workspaces and actual physical models at CFI.

Yet somehow, they made it work, and stepped up to ensure that innovation wouldn’t take a back seat in the lockdown.

Team Anveshak

Team Anveshak, the Mars Rover Design Team on campus, were busy preparing for the University Rover Challenge (URC) that was scheduled to take place in Utah, USA, in June 2020. They’d previously qualified 8th overall in the first stage of the competition, the SAR (System Acceptance Review), and were chosen as one of 36 teams from all over the world to travel to Utah for the final onsite competition.

However, all sense of a schedule was thrown into jeopardy as days turned into weeks. There was genuine doubt regarding whether or not the competition would even take place. The Mars Society eventually decided to suspend the competition because of the rising COVID-19 cases at the time. They ultimately decided to cancel it altogether and released the final results based on the preliminary tasks alone.

It took some time for the team to get over the disappointment of the competition being cancelled. It was something that they had prepared for and looked forward to all year long, and as such, it was hard to come to terms with the fact that it wouldn’t be taking place. Nonetheless, they had to move on and begin laying out a plan for the upcoming year.

The team selected new recruits who had been working on their own mini-projects as part of the team for the better part of January to April 2020. Subsequently, the seniors, who decided to stay with the team for another year, began the mentoring process.

The team is broadly divided into three modules: the Electronics and Software module, the Mechanical module, and the Science module. The absence of a physical rover to carry out tests forced every module to adapt and make the best use of virtual resources to keep the progress on the right track. The Electronics and Software subsystem primarily focused on devising a new algorithm for the rover’s autonomous navigation.

It took some time for the team to get over the disappointment of the competition being cancelled. It was something that they had prepared for and looked forward to all year long, and it was hard to come to terms with the fact that it wouldn’t be taking place.

Working with a virtual model of the rover in Gazebo, a simulation platform, the juniors experimented with existing algorithms and tried to tune them to fit the rover model. They tried simulating the various tasks of a normal URC on Gazebo: equipment retrieval and delivery, equipment servicing and autonomous travel.

Currently, the team is building a system that accounts for terrain traversability in addition to the presence of obstacles to decide the optimal path to be followed. Work has also been put in to make a Custom-GUI that can be used to enable and disable different capabilities of the rover with ease. Meanwhile, the Mechanical subsystem made use of tools like Fusion360, MATLAB, and SolidWorks to perfect the rover design.

The team members were divided into smaller subgroups to work on specific parts of the rover, and deficiencies and drawbacks in the previous years’ designs were identified and replaced with new and improved versions.

Online meetings were held weekly, and updates were taken from team members to account for the work done throughout the week. At least once every month, there would be a full-team meeting where members of different submodules could familiarize themselves with each other’s work. Subsequently, a plan for the next week would be mapped out, and the tasks would be divided amongst everyone.

The first competition in which the team would showcase their new work was the Indian Rover Design Challenge(IRDC): a challenge specifically designed to cater to an online mode of competition. A competition that took place in August 2020, it required teams to carefully plan each subsystem of the rover considering various extra-terrestrial parameters in the design. The ultimate aim was for students to explore their minds and spark their innovative design thinking without constraints on available physical resources.

The final submission was to be in the form of an Engineering Design Report (EDR) that would be judged based on the compliance of the rover to the given parameters and effectiveness on mentioned tasks. The innovation and imaginativeness of the design and the overall sophistication of the system were also a major factor for judging. Teams from both within and outside India took part in this competition, and Team Anveshak ended up placing seventh overall.

In November, the team also took part in the 48-hour International Mars Hackathon conducted by the Mars Society and placed twelfth overall. Despite these achievements, the fact remains that both these competitions were primarily theory-based and didn’t allow the team to fully showcase what they’d worked on.

URC 2021 was scheduled to take place in the first week of June 2021 [Anveshak’s submission for the SAR can be viewed here]. However, it had to be cancelled once again because of the travel restrictions posed by the pandemic in various countries.

This was another disappointment, especially for the seniors who had stayed on for an extra year but couldn’t participate in the competition. To quench their thirst for a challenge, the team decided to participate in the European Rover Challenge (ERC) instead. 

The ERC was different from other competitions because it actually involved a physical rover. The competition required teams to remotely control a rover based in Poland using custom algorithms to perform specific graded tasks. This was an exciting, new challenge, and the team dove into it headfirst. The competition was divided into stages, and only a certain number of teams would be taken past each stage.

The team placed 4th overall in the first stage, thus qualifying as part of the top seventeen teams to go to the second stage. At the time of publishing, they placed seventh overall in the second stage and are part of the fifteen teams that have qualified for the final event in September. The team’s submissions for the first two stages, which give some insight into what they’ve been working on, can be viewed here [Simulation Task, Qualification B].

Besides participating in competitions, the team also held Robotics-based workshops as a part of Shaastra 2021 that attracted over 150 registrations.

Anveshak’s freshie onboarding process in 2021 was held entirely online. Each of the three modules: Electronics and Software, Mechanical and Science, had a separate test that focused on general concepts from each field. The questions were framed practically and designed to make the applicant search for new information. After the first written test, shortlisted students would go through an interview process to ask further questions to verify their understanding.

Students selected after round 2 would go through a two-month mini-project phase where they would work under the guidance of a senior on a mini-project that was relevant to the rover and could be incorporated as an improvement in the future.

Team Avishkar Hyperloop

Unlike most teams, Team Avishkar could not conduct team selections before the institute shut down in March 2020. The team remained relatively inactive between March to July 2020, with a lot of uncertainty surrounding the institute’s reopening. However, by August, they decided to resume operations.

Unfortunately, the team that returned wasn’t the team that left the institute in March. Some students chose to quit the team considering the uncertain future. After over three months of inactivity, the team found itself in a precarious position. They had to start their design for the new pod from scratch, and several team members were busy with internships during this period.

Talking about these difficulties faced by the team, team head Neel Balar said, “Because the team had been inactive for three-four months, we had to start everything from scratch. Apart from that, some of the old members had internships or internship selections and couldn’t focus.”

Moreover, the departure of older members and the fact that new recruits hadn’t been selected before the insti shutdown meant that the team was now short of people. The decision was thus made to hold the recruitment process online. After an orientation session, the team released vertical-specific problem statements and conducted selections based on students’ answers to these questions.

Unfortunately, the team that returned wasn’t the team that left the institute in March. Some students chose to quit the team considering the uncertain future.

The entire process was completed by mid-October, and by the end of it, nearly 70% of the team was composed of new recruits. Considering the fact that they had never actually worked on the physical pod before, the older team members decided to spend the first few months educating the newer members about the various technologies and software they used.

Without access to physical materials to build and test their actual pod, the team adjusted and moved their work online. The team comprises eight subsystems: Braking, Business, Controls and Communications, Linear Induction Motor(LIM), Levitation, Power Systems, Structures and Suspension. 

The team consists of two heads who are responsible for overall decision making. Below them in the hierarchy are three group leads: the eight subsystems are divided into three groups where each group lead is responsible for two or more subsystems. The subsystem heads and the regular team members make up the rest of the team. Group and subsystem meetings were held regularly for updates, and full team meetings were held occasionally to keep the whole team in the loop.

Every year, the team’s ultimate goal is to build a new and improved prototype of a Hyperloop pod, making sure that it uses scalable technologies that can be used in an actual Hyperloop pod. The original SpaceX Hyperloop pod competition hadn’t taken place since 2019, and there was no indication that it would happen in 2021.

However, four participants of the original competition came together to start a new competitive environment in the form of the European Hyperloop Week (EHW). In November 2020, Team Avishkar received an email from the EHW committee notifying them about the competition and requesting their participation.

While the SpaceX competition primarily focused on the pod’s speed, the EHW judges participants on six different categories, focusing not on one particular aspect but on how scalable, unique and innovative the technologies used are. The competition was divided into stages. Each team had to submit a preliminary design report by December and a Final Design Report by March to be deemed eligible to go to Valencia, Spain, for the onsite competition in July.

When the team submitted their final design report in March, it was about hundred pages long and comprehensively covered every aspect of the design of their pod. At the same time, they started mailing institute authorities to be allowed back onto the campus to bring their design to life.

They received the required permission in the third week of March, and around 18 team members were able to arrive on campus by the 3rd of April. Upon the end of the quarantine period, they finally got to work on the physical pod in CFI. However, their happiness was short lived as the second wave reared its head and led to a lockdown in the whole city.

This was a very tough period for the team: they’d taken a risk coming to the campus to work during a pandemic and the purpose of their visit was immediately thwarted by the lockdown. As a result of the lockdown, they couldn’t reach out to manufacturing industries to obtain the parts they needed. Nearly 80% of the components used in the pod were custom-made and required manufacturing based on the design submitted by the team.

The lockdown finally ended on the 30th of May, and they were able to receive the components they’d sent for manufacturing before the lockdown by the 20th of June. This led to the testing phase where each subsystem was tested extensively: both separately and together as part of the entire system. A 60m track was built behind NAC for demonstration purposes.

As the competition date drew nearer, however, the team had to make the difficult decision of not going to Valencia for the onsite competition and instead participating virtually from the campus because of the intensity of the second wave. Even competing virtually, Team Avishkar ended up winning the Award for Most Scalable Design, besides placing in the Top 5 in Mechanical, Propulsion, Levitation, and Complete Pod Awards.

Besides the outstanding competition results, the team also held a special “Pod Run Demonstration” outside NAC for dignitaries, including the Director, DoSt, VK Saraswat, and representatives from the team sponsors. The team also held a virtual pod unveiling event for students from the institute to showcase their new pod to the general public.

Team Abhiyaan

Team Abhiyaan is a group of students who are committed to building intelligent ground navigation systems. Their work primarily centres around robust, precise, and safe autonomous control of ground vehicles. Viraat (an autonomous ground robot) and Bolt (an autonomous electric vehicle) are the current iterations of their work. 

Team Abhiyaan with Viraat (left) and Bolt (right) before the pandemic

When the institute shut down in March, Team Abhiyaan was in the midst of selecting new recruits for the upcoming year. Unfortunately, that process couldn’t be completed entirely on campus and had to be continued online. The experience helped them the second time around when they again had to select new recruits: this time entirely online.

The team tried to ensure that they didn’t compromise on the learning side of the recruitment process. For the software module, applications were intended to focus more on adaptability and other skills than theoretical knowledge.

As a result, the recruits needed to cover many concepts and tools before they started working on actual projects. The team provided some learning resources and assigned tasks and projects, which helped in the onboarding process.

For the mechanical module, the recruits were taken through the same discussions that the team had while working on Bolt (the autonomous electric vehicle) to familiarize them with the team’s work. Various meetings were held in which senior team members presented some of the work being done by the team.

Lastly, for the electronics module, the entire knowledge transfer process was conducted smoothly, with the recruits understanding the overall culture of the team and the module. Tasks were allotted to them so that they could learn through practice.

“The recruits were asked to understand and validate the main Printed Circuit Board for Viraat through which they started to learn how to read and understand datasheets and implement schematics based on it. They are also involved with the battery systems of Viraat and MACRo(Martian Autonomous Core-Sampling Rover),” said Arun Krishna, a senior member of the Electronics module.

“Since everything is online, team bonding has been a bit difficult, but some informal team bonding and gaming sessions were held to make the recruits feel comfortable,” said another team member.

Some competitions adapted to the online scenario and altered the competition formats to fit the constraints due to the pandemic, but this was not the case with most competitions. IGVC (Spec 2 and Autonav) and the Indy Autonomous Challenge (IAC) were the two major competitions planned for this term. Unfortunately, IGVC was cancelled, and the team was only able to take part in the IAC. 

“The recruits were asked to understand and validate the main Printed Circuit Board for Viraat through which they started to learn how to read and understand datasheets and implement schematics based on it. They are also involved with the battery systems of Viraat and MACRo(Martian Autonomous Core-Sampling Rover).

The IAC had five rounds, of which the first two rounds involved report and video submission. The prototype was to display autonomy above a certain level to go to the next round. The third round happened in a simulated environment (Ansys VRXPERIENCE).

The racecourse was virtually reconstructed, and the team made it through three out of four hackathons conducted in the third round. The hackathons involved individual lap tests and one on one races with other teams.

The team was mainly required to optimize the path or the racing line respecting the speed constraints imposed by the organizers. Due to internet bandwidth limitations with most team members, it took significantly longer to run the virtual machine at around 20-30 mins for a lap.

Still, the team successfully made it through the first three hackathons despite all these constraints. Some of these hackathons lasted about ten hours at a stretch. The fourth hackathon coincided with the end-semester exams of most of the team members, so the team had to drop out of the hackathon.

The team secured first place among the 37 other teams in the Social Media contest in both the jury and community favourites categories conducted as part of the Indy Autonomous Challenge.

“The team is well prepared with the software module. The other modules are ready with the designs for the parts, but integrating the software systems with the vehicle and making the parts is a tedious task that can only be done when the institute reopens,” said a team senior.

Due to internet bandwidth limitations, it took significantly longer to run the virtual machine at around 20-30 mins for a lap. Still, the team successfully made it through the first three hackathons.

Without access to the actual car, the team decided to focus on tasks that didn’t require the car’s presence for testing. They also made use of software that could best replicate the car and the tasks it was supposed to perform. “We relied on simulation environments like Gazebo and CARLA. We used Ansys VRXPERIENCE for the Indy Autonomous Challenge.”, said a member of the software module.

In the electronic module, efforts were focused more on improving the safety and telemetry of the Virat bot based on the already available information. Some work being done includes the development of the main PCB for the Virat bot, improving functional safety features and efficiency, and implementing a battery monitoring system.

The team also developed a UI interface for a golf cart and is currently developing the same for Virat bot to aid in implementing telemetry. Mechanical designs such as CAD models were the main focus for the mechanical module amidst the pandemic. Efforts were made to make a proper 3D model of every part that would be manufactured once the team returned to campus.

The team also performed stress and strain analysis on Computer Aided Engineering software such as Ansys workbench/Abaqus to pre-determine possible failure points and improve the structure beforehand.

Speaking about the challenges faced by some submodules, a team member said, “The work on Bolt needed the team to be present on-site to work on the components for steer by wire. The structure of the cart, the assembly, supports, and various dimensions were crucial in proceeding with our work for Bolt. To tackle this, some pictures of Bolt were taken and sent to the team, and using that as a rough estimate, the team has prepared the CAD models for the respective systems.”

During the development of the ROS driver for the GNSS(Global Navigation Satellite System) module, the team used external tools to relay device behaviour to other team members so that multiple people could work on the project without physically having the device.

“Septentrio, our sponsor, had given us GNSS receivers to use in our bots, but it wasn’t compatible with the tech stack we use. So the team took up the responsibility of writing the software driver for it. ROS has a pretty huge community, and developing the driver meant many more people could use their receiver with ROS,” said Ashwin, a senior member of the Software module.

Team head Shashank also talked about other activities organized by the team: “We also had the opportunity to interact with the students of IIT Palakkad in an online session where we talked about our journey over the years, our vision for the future and our work for IGVC and IAC competitions.”

The MACRo (Mars Autonomous Core-sampling Rover) project was taken up in collaboration with ExTeM centre of excellence. The team is working under the sub-theme “make products in space for space and earth applications.”

They are now working towards building a drilling system attached to a Martian rover to improve the sampling process. Autonomous drilling and mobility are the main goals of this project which aims to explore a niche field.

Raftar Formula Racing

Raftar is a team of 50 students from different disciplines in IIT Madras with a shared passion for automotive engineering and motorsports. Every year, the team takes up the challenge of building a swift Formula Student race car and works to develop the most competent lot of engineers in the nation. Working at the Centre For Innovation, IIT Madras, Raftar aims to become a globally competitive team and promote the Formula Student culture in India.

The team took part in Formula Bharat 2021 in the combustion category, which happened virtually. It was modified to be a concept design event instead of one where the physical car you bring is evaluated. This change allowed the team to showcase the design progress that they made while working from home. A Business Plan Presentation event was conducted alongside the main event as usual.

Team Raftar won the whole competition, thereby becoming the only team to have back-to-back victories at Formula Bharat (2020 and 2021). To signify their entry into the electric car domain, Team Raftar also participated in the Formula Student Electric Vehicle Concept Challenge 2021. They placed 2nd overall in their first year of participation, just 11 points behind the winning team, which had eight years of experience under their belt.

When asked what the team focused its efforts on without access to the actual car, a member responded: “Our focus was mainly on the design and planning aspect of the car more than the manufacturing and testing side of things. We made the timely decision before the lockdown to progress to an electric powertrain. The lockdown gave us time to focus on our new design and knowledge transfer. Changing from a combustion to an electric vehicle is a significant change. Our goal is to finish off the design of our 1st car before insti opens so that we focus on manufacturing and testing once we get there.”

For Raftar, all the subsystems are equally dependent on access to the actual model. In Formula Student, every decision has to be justified and validated using data as much as possible, and for that, access to the car or any relevant setup is necessary.

Since that wasn’t possible this year, the designs were made either based on previous year data, assumptions, or other open available open-source data. The team aims to immediately validate their designs upon returning to the institute before implementing them in the car. 

Raftar’s freshie onboarding process was delayed because of the trimester system being followed for the new batch. The team faced the challenge of revising their schedule to balance their time working on the design with the time spent on the recruitment process. This was the second year Raftar recruited students for an electrical team.

In a typical year, the orientation session would be in the Central Lecture Theatre, and subsequent interviews, after the testing phase, would be at CFI. This year, however, the entire process was moved to Zoom.

Normally, every year, the team would have an interaction session at Himalaya Lawns just before and after the orientation where anyone could see the car up close and ask questions about it.

Since access to the car wasn’t possible this year, the designs were made either based on previous year data, assumptions, or other open available open-source data.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t possible this time, and the team had to rely on photos and videos instead. This year, the questions the team posed to the audience during orientation were also more generic and centred around engineering principles pertaining to the respective subsystems.

In a typical offline setup, all the new recruits, regardless of the subsystem, learn first-hand how the team functions and get hands-on experience with tools used to build the car. They help out in testing sessions and facilitate the manufacturing of the new vehicle for their 1st year and carry out most of the design only in their 2nd year.

In a remote environment, the freshies were made to learn more about the design-related aspects of the car. Since this was the first time the team was building an electric car, this served as a plus because everyone was learning things together and operating on the same wavelength.

Looking Ahead

2020 proved to be a challenging year for everyone, and the students at IITM were not sheltered from it. In an unprecedented situation with no guiding light or clear future, the ability to find the motivation to continue innovating is special.

Innovation is something CFI competition teams have stood for since their inception, and they made sure that they stood by that ideal in the toughest of times. 

Former President Abdul Kalam once said, “If four things are followed – having a great aim, acquiring knowledge, hard work, and perseverance – then anything can be achieved.”

It wasn’t all roses, and every team has something they wish they could rework if they had an opportunity for a do-over. Nevertheless, they persevered and put their best foot forward to ensure that they maintained IITM’s pride on the global stage. Needless to say, this unique year will remain etched in CFI lore forever.

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