Insights from the Innopolis online robotics competition

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This year has seen many of our national organizers and partners come up with new ways to keep our young robot enthusiasts engaged. One of them is our university partner in Russia, Innopolis University. They usually host something called Innopolis Open University Olympiad but like so many other events in 2020 it got cancelled. Instead of disappointing the young participants, the university made a quick decision to recreate the competition in an online format. We talked to project manager Rustam Kagapov to find out what they learned from going online.

"We already had some simulators that could work online, so after talking to our partners we quickly decided to move the competition online," says Rustam Kagapov, project manager, Olympiad Robotics at Innopolis University.

The decision was quick, but it took a lot of work to transfer robotics competitions to online. A big obstacle was the participants' lack of equipment. But Innopolis University's partners – robotic schools and training centers – had the hardware and was willing to help out. Work started straight away. A committee prepared tasks and assessment criteria, drew up rules and regulations, consulted with participants and conducted selections. The plan? To have participants complete tasks on virtual and real remote fields via video communication. Tasks that didn't differ much from those of the real life competition. 

Distance Competition Tools

Competitions in all categories were organized in a similar way: on the day of the competition, the judges announced part of the conditions: placement of elements on the training ground, loaded the participants' programs into the simulator and broadcast the process of completing the task. If the robot under the control of the participants' program managed the task, the team was awarded points. 

An example of how a category was done, the "Intelligent Autonomous Unmanned Underwater Vehicles": The Center for Development of Robotics from Vladivostok helped Innopolis University with the direction. Participants was to explore a seabed. In the simulator, they had to find baskets equipped with pingers that emit an acoustic signal, have their robot drop markers into the baskets, and float in a loop near the water's surface. In its MUR Edu simulator, the center prepared scenes and broadcast them to the participants. 

Complications and fixes

There were technical problems along the way, but they were solved on the go by the university's team of specialists and partners. One example: an automatic evaluation was supposed to take place in a category called "Manipulation IRS". A whole park of computers were deployed and a special toolkit for evaluation was configured on it. But at the very last moment it became clear that the program-judge made mistakes and couldn't be trusted with the responsibility of determining the winner. It was replaced by a human. Which meant live commenting like in football matches, a feature that turned out to be very popular.

Another issue that came up, which nobody could have foreseen, was that participants managed to break a virtual robot. During certain actions of the participant's program in the simulator, parts of the grip model of the manipulator flew off. For the future, the organizers concluded that even models for simulators would have to be made vandal resistant. 

Virtually together

An important aspect for the planning committee was how to make everyone in the competition feel like they were all in it together.

"We made some entertainment and activities, not forgetting the open and closing ceremonies, which were more informal than at live events. The children said they liked this version better, because the find it boring to listen to people they don't know," Rustam Kagapov says.

Watch the opening ceremony video. It's in Russian, but it will give you an idea of the format.

The team behind the competition also had plans for a coach tournament – a rare thing but often appreciated. And it's a great way to distract coaches from prompting the participants. But the idea was announced too late so no one showed up. Instead, everyone enthusiastically responded to the proposal to meet in a virtual bar after the event finished.

Even with the virtual social activities, the university don't think online competition can compete with physical events just yet. In the evaluation most participants said they missed socializing with other teams, and visiting new places. In general, though, the committee found the event to be a success, and that the format should be used more – with even more interactivity and engagement, more broadcasts and live comments. 

Half the expected number

The online competition had 120 participants, 12-18 years old from 23 regions of Russia and the Republic of Belarus. Due to the pandemic only half of the expected number of participants joined, as many of the participants had their kits and hardware locked in their clubs. 
Also, not everyone was ready to master simulators in such a short time or found the format of an online competition attractive. For the same reason, the number of participants who fully completed the tasks was not high enough.

Key insights other organisers can learn from

1. Test simulators and remote fields
The simulators weren't meant for this purpose, though, and there were som bugs and errors, so that coaches and experts had to be prepared for some mistakes. Run the whole program before and see how participants solve the task, as a simulator is not the perfect replacement for reality. 
The tournament also used remote fields: With one on the tournament side, and one at the participants' location. Also test this format upfront. If the setup is correct and that the high resolution video cameras are placed in the right angles, so participants may get the feel for the whole field. Organize testing attempts some weeks before the competition, so that participants get used to the system and get a feel for how their robot is behaving in this environment.

2. Create variation 
Many participants were sick of the online format, because by the time the competition was due they already sat in front of a screen the whole day listening to their teachers. 
Organizers should think on how to make their online competition different. Innopolis University found that a good idea was live commenting and small talk on how the teams were doing. Both kids and spectators liked that

3. Course if new programs
If you use a new program, you should do a course in it well before the competition. The participants didn't have experience in using simulators, so two months before the Innopolis Open, the university held a series of webinars on working with the CoppeliaSim robot simulator, for 3D mobile and manipulating robots (another simulator used was TRIK Studio for 2D mobile robots). Even if Innopolis University did online lessons on how to use simulators before the competition, this was one of the barriers that meant fewer participants.