Africa excels at BRICS drone skills challenge

A Nelson Mandela University student has won silver this year’s BRICS Future Skills Challenge, which had to be held virtually this year because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Jacques Welgemoed (23), a Master’s in Mechatronics student at NMU, returned as South Africa’s representative to the challenge where he won bronze last year, to claim joint silver this time, with the Temasek Polytechnic of Singapore taking top honours with an unbeatable 95 points.

Started in 2017, the BRICS Future Skills Challenge is an innovation skills competition for participants from the BRICS coalition of emerging economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) and beyond, which is usually held on the sidelines of the BRICS Summit in that year’s host nation. This year’s summit – scheduled for Saint Petersburg in Russia in July had to be postponed to due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the challenge proceeded virtually, hosted as the Drone Operating Skill Camp by Copter Express, a Russian company that manufacturers drones for educational and other commercial purposes. The educational drones, the COEX Clover drones, are used for open source robotics education, and it was for their programming that this year’s competition was based on.

Nelson Mandela University was second, tied with Brazil’s National Institute of Industrial Training (SENAI) and the Chimborazo Higher Polytechnic from Ecuador. The Ghana team – comprising Enoch Akesseh, Salifu Abudullah, Moses Amyaga Azuure from the Sunyani Technical university came third.

Eighty-five participants from twelve countries – Ghana, Barbados, Brazil, China, Colombia, Ecuador, India, Portugal, Singapore, South Africa, Taiwan and the United Arab Emirates – took part in the seven-day Drone Operating camp and challenge that took off on July 22 this year.

This year’s challenge was mainly focussed on networking, promoting careers in drone technology and ideas exchange and development of a community. The participants learned about Drone Operating Skill-competition according to WorldSkills standards and get practical experience in the autonomous flight using CoEx Clover open-source platform.

This year’s Skills Challenge had to be held in virtual mode

The South African excelled in drone operating, not only conducting an online teaching camp but also implementing the actual challenge event and assessing competitors throughout the world simultaneously.

And, after 320 autonomous flights, 250 lines of code, at least twelve working hours and eight video tutorials in seven day, Welgemoed was happy to declare this year’s challenge as fun and a great introduction to autonomous micro aerial vehicles.

“It was interesting to be able to write a programme while at home here in South Africa; and fly a drone with that programme in a different country (Russia),” he said. “It provided valuable experience working with software relevant to my research topic and the instructors provided helpful feedback and advice in this regard.”

The participants were taught the finer points of drone programming and autonomous indoor navigation in an online classroom before being tutored individually by CoEx personnel to bring all participants up to a similar level of competency.

Over the course of four days, the competitors were tasked with writing code that was then uploaded to physical drones waiting in a warehouse in Russia that would then perform the tasked flights. Competitors were presented with live footage of their drones, essentially on the other side of the world, flying autonomously using the code they had just written.

The drones needed to navigate to specific positions in the testing warehouse without GPS relying solely on visual cues and then perform measurements on the dimensions of boxes placed at those positions using laser range finders.

Welgemoed volunteered to enter the competition again after taking part at the 2019 WorldSkills challenge in Kazan, Russia, where he won bronze behind Russia and China.

“Ideally a new student would have had the opportunity to represent South Africa this year but with limited training time due to COVID, it was decided to give Jacques the opportunity to compete again, this time achieving silver,” says Damian Mooney, Project Manager: Airborne Drone and Underwater Glider Research at the NMU, and Welgemoed’s mentor.

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