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Meet the Indian Cycle Mechanics & Welders Who Won the Land Rover Competition at NASA

Anil Pradhan, an engineer and mission director of the Navonmesh Prasar Student Astronomy Team (NaPSAT), guided a 10-member team to win third prize at the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge in 2021

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Kailash Chandra Barik from Mayurbhanj in Odisha is a cycle mechanic who had no knowledge of space exploration. Never in 18 years of his life did he receive the opportunity to be exposed to the concept either. However, today, he is one of the 10-member team that won the third prize at the NASA Human Exploration Rover Challenge in 2021.

The annual competition held by NASA pronounced them ‘overall winners’ in the high school division, ranking them third after Parish Episcopal School Team 1, Dallas, Texas, and Stillwater Area High School, Stillwater, Minnesota.

The 10 members that represented India are from different schools across the country and put together a rover that could potentially run on the surface of the moon.

Kailash came across the opportunity after being selected as a part of the team for the NASA challenge. He filled up an online form on the Young Tinker website, an online hands-on learning platform after learning about the contest.

The website was launched by Anil Pradhan—an engineer and mission director of the Navonmesh Prasar Student Astronomy Team (NaPSAT)—in 2020 to reach out to the children offering online learnings during the pandemic. The website aims to groom scientific temper, develop creative and innovative ideas keeping lesser privileged children in focus.

Engineering a vehicle that runs on moon

Team of students who conceived the project.

Anil says the achievement is commendable as it is the first time an Indian high school team has won the ‘overall winner’ award. “Indian teams have won awards in other categories but being part of the overall winner category has remained unbreakable so far. Moreover, it is not the students from premium institutes winning it, but innovators from humble backgrounds achieving success,” he adds.

Highlighting the details about the competition, the 25-year-old says, “The competition targets students under 19 years and involves creating a four-wheeled mechanical rover to work on the surface of the moon for future human missions.”

He explains that the students are expected to come with a working model of the rover which is foldable with no motor and able to fit in 5x5x5 feet space. The participants have to engage the axle, wheels, drive-train, steering, suspension, seat ergonomics, soil extractor and other aspects of the vehicle during the competition.

“The competition details were mentioned on the website calling for applications in 2020, and students registered for the same. A team of 10 students, with expertise in different fields, came together to steer the project to success,” Anil tells The Better India.

He says the team worked during the pandemic to bring the vehicle together. “I explained the requirements of the competition and assisted in arranging the resources. The students materialised the design,” he adds.

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Kailash says that he had no confidence to pull off the task when he was selected. “It was a global competition, and I was nervous as the other team members had better educational backgrounds and were knowledgeable in other fields. However, I focussed on what I knew best and overcame my fear. I realised that it is a team effort and we all played our respective roles,” he adds.

Amateurs earn success

Watch students driving the rover on Indian terrain

Rina Bagha—another student team member, who is pursuing industrial vocational training—works as a welder. “I was unaware of the complexities and manufacturing aspects of the project. It became difficult to work during the initial couple of months as it demanded understanding the design and came with on-ground challenges. But I was interested and passionate about participating and learning,” says the 18-year-old.

The Indian team, with no technical expertise, was able to overcome multiple challenges and achieve the feat.

But the main challenge, Anil says, lies in the Indian education system that focuses more on theoretical knowledge and less on practical training. “The students have less hands-on knowledge and are expected to excel in a professional scenario. Some of the students belong to remote areas such as 42 Mouza, a part of 42 islands in Odisha where such exposure never reaches them,” he explains, adding that manufacturing and procuring parts during the lockdown was another hurdle.

Anil says the students were shortlisted from the 800 applications received on the Young Tinker website. The academy sponsored three students and other school students who were above 14 years of age. “The students worked on a tight deadline as the proposal was selected in August 2020 and completed by February. The competition was held in April 2021. Traditionally, the competition is held by physically visiting and demonstrating the vehicle. But a live demonstration was held owing to the pandemic. It made the students take additional efforts to convince the evaluators,” he adds.

Edited by Yoshita Rao

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