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Cleveron, which develops and constructs parcel robots, started something last year in Estonia that has never been done before. In cooperation with the Estonian Entrepreneurship University of Applied Sciences, the company started an applied higher education curriculum called the Cleveron Academy. The academy aims to train software developers with a specific focus on self-driving cars.
There was already enormous interest in the Cleveron Academy in the first year with a total of 101 candidates applying for 20 places. Although it’s a private school, all of the tuition fees (5500 euros per year) are paid by Cleveron itself. On top of that, all of the students get free housing, free lunches, and a monthly stipend of 400 euros.
The focus is self-driving cars: Cleveron is developing a parcel robot that is based on one. Even if you have not heard of Cleveron, you still might have used their robotic parcel terminals without your knowledge. Cleveron’s solutions can be found in Asda stores around the United Kingdom and the world’s largest fashion retailer Inditex has used their click and collect pickup solutions in many different countries. To date, their biggest international client has been Walmart with 1600 Cleveron terminals around the USA.
Cleveron CEO Arno Kütt has stated that the aim of the academy was for education and business to go hand in hand. According to Kütt, students of higher education often take internships in companies that are not related to their studies and only start them after the theoretical portion of their training is coming to a close. At Cleveron Academy, the theory and internship are equally proportioned and start right away.
Cleveron Academy, like Cleveron itself, operates out of the small, southern Estonian town of Viljandi, known internationally for the Viljandi Folk Festival and other cultural events. Laido Valdvee, the academy’s internship coordinator, talked with Life in Estonia about how students are converting an ATV into a self-driving vehicle.
Learning together with the students
Laido Valdvee previously worked at Viljandi Jakobsoni School as well as vocational training institutions; Cleveron asked him to join. His decision to join came quickly, said Valdvee, because he wanted to be a part of something that had never been done before in Estonia. He started last October and since then time has flown.
“As an internship coordinator, time has passed quickly for me. Just like the students I’ve also had to learn a lot. A curriculum like ours has never been done before in Estonia. A great deal of emphasis is on practice. The weekly study session is divided by three days of practice and two days of theory, the following week is vice-versa,” says Valdvee.
Practice started right off the bat alongside theory, which are balanced 50/50. This means that students may not have all the theoretical know-ledge in the beginning to use in practice. Valdvee says that students talk about their friends who study similar curriculums at well-known universities; they say that they do not receive a comparable amount of practical training and mainly use simulators that do not represent the positive or negative effects of the real world.
“In the first semester’s practice, the students got a miniature robot car that had to be rebuilt so that the robot could deliver small balls that were placed in a four-metre diameter circle into smaller circles. At first, the robots were controlled by the students via a computer, they maintained a line of sight with the robots by standing next to them while operating them. In the next stage the control had to be done via a camera image, so no line of sight anymore, and in the third stage the robots had to independently bring five balls together in one circle. That meant the robots had to understand where they and the balls were and where the circles were,” Valdvee describes.
Most of the students were successful with these tasks. Valdvee made an interesting observation during the presentation. While the systems were checked and the students were evaluated everything worked without any problem, but the next day when they decided to perform a race against time, the robots started to fail.
During the described practice, the students also created their own navigation system, a homemade GPS so to speak. To achieve this, a camera was placed at a height, markings were affixed to each robot, and the balls were identified by colour.
“The built system shared real-time information about where the balls, robots, and circles were located. The robots were programmed to go to the nearest ball or the most easily accessible ball,” says Valdvee.
At Cleveron Academy the students are presented with a problem and the solution to it is wholly up to the students. This makes students keener to work on cooperation and creativity skills.
The second semester’s practice was remarkably bigger – the students were given an electrically powered ATV and different tasks they needed to achieve with the ultimate goal of making a self-driving ATV that can be used for parcel freight. Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic affected studies, and the task was put on pause until August of this year when studies continue.
Their first task was to make the ATVs controllable via remote like drones. All of the functions such as indicators, horns, brakes, and accelerator pedals had to be functional via the remote. The internship supervisor has big plans for the ATVs.
“At first, the ATVs have to be controllable via remote control. In the next phase, the students need to add a computer to the remotes so the vehicles can be controlled via Wi-Fi. The ATVs will then have cameras attached and the driving needs to be done through a steering wheel that is connected to a computer. This was meant to be ready by this spring,” describes Valdvee.
As mentioned, the final goal is to have a self-driving parcel freight vehicle based on an electrically powered ATV. To test all of the self-driving capabilities, a mini-city will be built next to Cleveron’s factory in Viljandi with crosswalks, roundabouts, and other real-world obstacles.
Cleveron and its Academy working hand-in-hand
During the first weeks of the emergency situation that was announced by the Estonian government on the 12th of March, Valdvee provided the students with Arduino development boards so they could continue to work on their practical skills. As the aim is to teach students skills to develop a self-driving car, the lecturers quickly decided to put the practical portion of the studies on pause until the situation settles, then resume in August.
Like many schools in Estonia and around the world, studies had to be carried out online. It’s too early to say what kind of an impact the distance studies had on students, but Valdvee sees that students are coping with it differently – some of them enjoy it, but some are not so keen on the idea. Every week the students meet with their lecturers through video conferences.
Even though Cleveron manufactures robotic parcel terminals of different sizes, Valdvee does not want to use the students in manufacturing during this difficult time as it would not fulfil the purpose of the learning objective.
The Cleveron Academy and Cleveron itself are intertwined, which means that the students and workers share working and studying facilities. It also means that when a student or a group of students develop something that could be used in Cleveron’s products then they can start using it.
“The students work side-by-side with Cleveron’s self-driving car team. We share the rooms in our office. The students see daily what the employees work on and vice versa. That means they can ask for help from each other. This should be a very good added value as you are not somewhere in the lab but part of the real development process. Maybe thanks to immediate feedback, you will have a better idea, and you can implement it immediately,” says Valdvee.
Based on his previous work experience in vocational education institutions, Valdvee points out that the motivation of the students enrolled in the Academy is considerably higher. This is also reflected in the fact none of the students have dropped out by the end of the first year.
The next batch of students will be admitted to the Academy in 2021 but whether the focus will be on self-driving cars or something else is yet unknown. Although a large proportion of the programs the students need to work with are in English, the studies are conducted in Estonian, which means that a person interested in attending the academy needs to be proficient in it. There are no other limitations for candidates.