Nasa Space Apps 2015: This Pakistani team hopes to operate in space

Published May 1, 2015
As part of NASA’s Incubator Innovator Program, a total of 949 projects from 133 countries were created.—Shutterstock
As part of NASA’s Incubator Innovator Program, a total of 949 projects from 133 countries were created.—Shutterstock

I recently wrote about how there are more than one silver linings in our national affairs (no matter how badly we are used to ignoring them). One of the examples I quoted was the participation of a Pakistani team in NASA’s International Space Apps Challenge. You would think that alone is great news, but it gets even better.

It was an event held in every tech-savvy country around the world, including Pakistan, at the Institute of Space Technology (IST), Islamabad.

As part of NASA’s Incubator Innovator Program, a total of 949 projects from 133 countries were created. Two of them came from Pakistan: RRC and M-GLOVE.

RemoReboCon or #RRC has made it to the top 15 candidates for the People's Choice Award. If #RRC gets enough public votes to finish in the top 5, it will go to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. Voting ends in two days.

I tracked down the duo behind this endeavour so we could learn more about them through a series of questions that they were polite enough to answer.

They hail from Lahore, and are colleagues at Coeus Solutions GmbH, a Berlin-based software company.

Naveed Ahsan is a Masters in IT from Punjab University College of Information and Technology (PUCIT).

Zaki Shaheen is a Computer Science graduate from FAST-NU Islamabad Campus and a Hackathon enthusiast, having participated recently in Startup Weekend, and Civic Hackathon Islamabad.

Q: How long have you been in the software industry?

A: Both of us have had 6+ years of software development experience and are iOS App specialists.

Q: Tell us a little about your project Remote Robot Connection (#RRC).

A: RRC is an app that controls a simulation of a robotic arm. When implemented, a robotic arm can be operated remotely, reducing the risk to astronauts during spacewalks.

A demonstration of the project.

Q: How did you come up with the idea?

A: In this hackathon, there were four categories: Human, OuterSpace, Earth and Robotics. Each category had approximately 10 projects each. That gave us around 40 projects to choose from. We found the SpaceGlove from the 'Humans' category the most interesting one.

A total of 48 teams attempted the SpaceGlove challenge. We found that other projects were data-driven, and it is hard to find data repositories. That was the problem faced by most other teams.

We chose ours because it is something that we could confidently scope, define and execute in the limited time that was available to us. That is not to say it was not challenging; we had to study a lot on NASA, its robots aboard the ISS and on spacewalks and why they are dangerous.

Q. Then did you have to do some serious research before going into simulation?

A. Yes… we knew we did not have the equipment or the knowledge to work with actual hardware, nor could we find an easily learnable simulator (in our time frame), so we had to make our own. We did that using UIKit Dynamics, iOS’s physics engine.

The code is opensource on GitHub for anyone to use and extend.

Q. Is that like saying you didn’t know how to use standard factory floors so you just assembled your own?

A. We made a simplified version of a robotic hand simulator – it is like if we did not know how to work with bricks and mortar, so we made do with cardboard as proof of concept. It worked well too, ESATelerobotics gave us a retweet.

Q. Last question, are there other space enthusiasts in Pakistan?

A. There is a whole community of amateur stargazers in Pakistan and the existence of Insitute of Space Technology shows that there is definitely interest in this region.

To put this all into perspective, these people were enthusiasts chasing their dream. Up to this point, they hadn’t had experience with simulating robotics before, but they had talent, so they improvised a solution in a very limited amount of time.

Their product is in the top 10 amongst 949 projects from across the world, with the potential of having a Pakistani app operating in space in the near future.

Ever since I have learnt of this, I have practically spammed all of my social media feeds. I am unashamedly biased in this regard, because I think #RRC’s success is the whole country’s success.

Here, you can vote to help #RRC climb its way up to the top.

Both Zaki and Naveed have high hopes, and have worked hard to come this far. Let us support them as their win could bring more opportunities to Pakistan.




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