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Rover on a beach: faking Mars

When you want to test your algorithm in robotics, you could just take your robot, run it, and see how well it works. Well, it is already quite inconvenient to run your robot each time you edit one line of the code. Now imagine, that your robot is supposed to go on Mars. It is not really feasible to send a robot there each time you change your code. 

For certain problems like localization and other computer vision problems, the option is to have data set containing the data  from sensors and then run the algorithm offline. However, such data directly from Mars rovers are very hard to come by! We sent only 4 rovers to Mars and the data are not that easily available. That is quite a headache for planetary-robotics researchers.

The alternative is to go to place which is very similar to Mars and there perform the experiment. Atakama desert is common place to go. Also Jordan could be great candidate; they shot Martian there.

Well, it is expensive to take your rover this far. Lots of people must come together to realize such event, so many complications on the way. But are there other options?? We tried to fake Mars on Dutch beach. And the result was not bad. 

ESTEC is located near by Nordwijk - famous Dutch resort for its amazing beaches. Well, there are nice beaches - not as nice as in Hawai. BUT there are long stretches of sand and that's the first ingredience to fake Mars. The other ingredience is a bigger problem in Holland - rocks! They are all over Mar, but they are really hard to come by in this flat and sandy kingdom of Netherlands. 

The ultimate task was not building the rover, but to fake 212 Martian rocks. Crazy, huh? 

That's what we thought from beginning. We could have shipped 212 rocks as big as 2m from rocky Switzerland. Well, it would be hell of the job. Ingenious solution was to print them! We built 212 rocks from card-board paper. Then we placed them over 1 km stretch of the beach, we took "orbital" image with a drone, and then we ran rover through the beach.

All this happened at the end of November - with acute danger that there will be rain any second. We were team of 6 people, around 10 then on the test day. Imagine that it was quite a feat to put this together with limited time due to short days in November. Fortunately we had amazing test manager, kinda Nazi too :), and at the end it turned out extremely well. People were around wondering we are doing and whether it is some kind of art project. Indeed it was.

So you can imagine that life of a robotics engineers can be quite colorful!

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