In this land we Bangladeshis call home, rarely do our dreams come true. Hardly if ever, do we get the opportunity to pursue our dreams, achieve greatness, and represent the country on the international stage while hoisting the flag and making those back home, proud.
Better days seem to be looming on the horizon as more and more Bangladeshi youth, like the members of 'Dichari', a robotics team from Brac University, have taken it upon themselves to represent Bangladesh on the global stage. As a matter of fact, this sentiment echoed in their voices as well.
"Since childhood, I have dreamt of representing Bangladesh on the international stage. So, reaching the finals of a European competition was simply bucket list stuff," said Sadikul Alim Toki, team leader of Dichari's research team, when asked about his experience in the European Robotics League.
For those who are unfamiliar with the robotics scene in Bangladesh, Dichari recently qualified for the Championship Round of the European Robotics League (ERL), one of the most prominent robotics competitions in the world. The ERL concentrates on the participants' capability of making robots that can navigate through serious real-life challenges, assist in rescue operations and test the controllers' ability to adapt to changing circumstances.
In their pursuit of reaching the Championship Round - held in the city of Poznań in Poland from 20 to 25 June - they beat teams from all over the world in the first two qualifying rounds. As the only team representing Asia, let alone Bangladesh or South Asia, Dichari competed against four other European teams for the Championship title and eventually bowed out as the fourth best team along with the "Perseverance Award" for their persistent and consistent performance against the cream of the crop from Europe.
The Business Standard team had the opportunity to speak to the members of 'Dichari' and learn about their participation in detail.
"We have two robots, one of which can fly and is designed for aerial movement while the other one is for ground movement. Since the two robots can move in two different mediums in cohesion, we named it Dichari," said Md Firoz Wadud, Technical Lead and Autonomous Lead of Dichari.
Getting the group together
"On April 05, Toki called me and Arnab and we decided to participate in the ERL. The deadline for report submission was on the 17th and we had to complete the project, manage funds all within this very short period. Since the ERL also required an academic advisor for us to participate in the event, we had to convince Abdulla Hil Kafi sir to oversee our project. Managing all of these within 10-12 days was a hassle, to say the least," said Jahir Uddin, the Engineering Manager of the project.
But their misfortune would continue into their first flight of the drone. After having registered for the event and preparing a report for the event, on April 15, team Dichari ran their first test flight. Unfortunately, the wiring of the drone tore right at the get-go. Mr Kafi was patient and allowed them to weld the wiring from a nearby shop after which the drone flew well.
Trial and error: How they build the robots
Team Dichari submitted the report and video of their drone to ERL within April 17. Within 5-6 days, the first review came, which suggested that their initial drone was rather toy-like and needed significant improvement. They transformed the toy drone into a carbon-fibre one.
The making of a drone requires precision in cutting and designing the frames. Afterwards, they began to outsource the motors for the drone, as this type of motor was scarcely found in Bangladesh. Eventually, they were able to collect four 2.5 kg brass motors.
After the making of the drone, came the land-based rover. When asked about the making of the rover, Toki said, "We went to Khalil Sir (co-advisor of Dichari), to get an idea about the rover. He already had a base model of the rover and asked us to work on it. Step by step, we improved the mechanical performance of the model and developed the final model that we took to the competition."
There were three stages of the competition that the teams had to overcome to reach the final Championship round. The first stage was the report and video submission. The second stage of the competition involved a safety check. Due to some coding errors, team Dichari had to go through some temporary technical difficulties during the safety check. However, they overcame these issues with advice from their advisors and reached the Championship round.
When asked about the Championship round, Zahir Uddin said, "The competition created specific disaster scenarios with possible casualties and the rovers were tasked with identifying live humans, the nature of damages etc. The designer of the programme would use colour indications to denote damages and use mannequins to replace actual human beings. The competitors were tested in their response to these different scenarios, i.e., how they use their rovers and drones to tackle these problems."
Although members of Dichari spent a sleepless night making last-minute preparations - including testing the rover in the hotel lobby because of rain - they would not get the opportunity for a final test run of the drone or the rover.
As Project Engineering Manager Zahir Uddin said, "Since we could not run the final test for lack of time, we got into big trouble in the first trial of the first day. Our rover was not working and we did not know how the untested drone would behave. We also had some problems with our planning. As a result, we got zero in the first trial."
Perseverance and triumph
Despite failing on the first day, the team did not lose faith. But they faced new challenges on the second day when the drone crashed and the landing gear broke down.
Returning to the hotel, they fixed the landing gear using zip ties and applied epoxy and glue on the drone pop to reduce the noise. And their efforts would bear fruit, as everything ran smoothly on the third day. However, the drone would eventually bow out against a 30km/h wind current on the fourth day along with team Dichari.
Returning home, the members of Dichari plan to publish the findings from their projects in reputed international journals and are currently planning to do so. They also want to implement the project within the country and are already in discussion with the Forest Department.
"The Forest Department monitors the forest using expensive imported drones. We believe we can help in this regard. We have sent them a proposal for building automatic drones that would fly to specific locations to check whether the trees are alright or if someone was illegally cutting them down. On one hand, the monitoring process would become efficient. On the other hand, the cost of procuring a drone will go down," said Zahir.
"The main purpose of our project is to use the rover and the drone during natural calamities to assist in rescue operations. We are also assisting Walton to develop something like that," he added.