IEEE United - OSML Robotics Challenge
Learning How to Work In a Distributed World

The study of engineering is best done with hands-on team projects, but with Covid, those opportunities at universities have been shut down. With very few exceptions (such as healthcare practitioners), almost all training and education is online.

IEEE United was a coalition of IEEE student chapters that formed on their own initiative to address this problem. Once they established connections between several student chapters in California, Washington and Nevada, they began to develop ideas for team-based collaborative projects. At this point, mutual contacts in the National Security Innovation Network (NSIN) connected IEEE United leadership with Dan Hendricks, owner and founder of Open Source Maker Labs (OSML) in Vista, CA.

During the pandemic shutdown, OSML had been developing a solution for this exact problem. They had just completed their first run of the OSML Virtual Lab with a cohort of 27 physics students at Cal State San Marcos, as a four-week segment of their PHYS380 course. In addition to their on-site IoT lab, the OSML Virtual Lab includes self-hosted tools such as GitLab, JupyterHub, Grafana, OpenProject, and Nextcloud. Development of additional tools is underway for Rancher, for a Kubernetes-based DevOps environment, and Matrix/Element, for a secure collaboration environment.

OSML has a long history of supporting and providing hands-on engineering challenges for university students and young professionals. Some of these projects have included a 20-foot liquid fueled rocket built by student engineering club (SEDS) from UCSD with direct collaboration from NASA, three high-altitude balloon flights into near space (over 75,000 feet) that captured environmental data - and some incredible HD video, a transactive renewable energy project sponsored by the Department of the Navy and the Department of Energy, and two winning projects from NSIN national hackathons. For several years, OSML has also hosted student engineering challenges as part of the curricula for Cal State San Marcos and Palomar College.

For this summer’s IEEE United - OSML Engineering challenge, fifteen students signed on for a software-intensive robotics challenge over a two month period. Three distributed teams, each with some members local at OSML, are designing and implementing a set of small, autonomous robots based on the NVIDIA Jetson Nano platform. The robots will be required to successfully navigate an obstacle course at OSML, using path following, communications, obstacle detection and avoidance techniques. The teams started off by diving into learning the new tools. Jupyter provides a web-based scientific notebook that combines documentation, live computer code, and data analysis and presentation all in one environment. Gitlab is an advanced software development environment that is based on code change management and collaborative development. As the Nano-based robots are constructed in the lab, teams will be able to remotely access their robots over the Internet for testing their code in the live, production environment.

NVIDIA Jetson Nano workstations at OSML for IEEE United Robotics project

A big part of the learning experience will be to successfully work as distributed engineering teams, using OSML’s Virtual Lab tools for collaboration. Teams are made up of engineering students from six different universities, which is giving them additional insights and perspectives that they would not normally have within their individual school’s curricula. Each team has at least one member local at OSML to assemble and manage the hardware for their team’s robot, and other team members are collaborating remotely from other areas of California, Washington state - and even as far away as Indonesia and Ethiopia, with some students back in their home countries during the summer break. This makes OSML’s first international engineering challenge - further proving our success at mentoring distributed engineering teams.

This program will wrap up in September with all three robots navigating the obstacle course at OSML. Similar engineering challenges could also be organized during the academic year to bring together students from different universities - from any location. The IEEE United team hopes to expand the program across other IEEE regions, bringing this opportunity to many more students. The end result is to provide more engineering students with a set of unique skills that are highly sought by employers that need creative people that know how to work in distributed teams.

For more information, visit the OSML web site at or email If you would like a virtual tour, please let us know!

OSML Virtual Lab Launches With CSUSM
Distributed Engineering Challenge Project