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Flying high with Mars Rovers

Ever since Sagar Dhaka joined the Manipal Institute of Technology, it has been a fantabulous ride. Having had a productive stint at NCC Sagar joined the Mars Rover Manipal (MRM) project, which designs and builds next-generation Mars Rovers. From then there has been no looking back for Sagar and finally, he founded Mars Society South Asia, a humungous feat for a student.

Here he recounts his inspiring story. I still remember that day I reached Manipal for the first time in my life. It was July 27, 2015. Hailing from Defence background, I always had that innate skill to adapt fast to any conditions and environment. Having studied in six different states and interacted with students from entirely different cultures and languages, any new changes were nothing new for me.


And yes, that challenge of learning the local language is always there. The diversity of Manipal was one of the reasons why I chose Manipal for my engineering. Within a week time, I realised that most students of MIT were addicted to mobile and web series. Before joining the college, I did my research about student clubs and student bodies in Manipal. Realizing that Sundays were getting wasted, the first thing I did was to join NCC (4 Karnataka Engineers Company). I started spending my Sunday mornings doing the drill, learning about weapons and battle craft. Being an NCC cadet, one also learns to be more organised in day-to-day life. Ironing uniform, polishing shoes, haircut every Saturday evening and waking up at 6 am for going to NCC unit make one entirely different from other MIT students.

NCC tenure is three years and at the end of the second year, one gets B certificate, and the next year C certificate.


Between May 20 and 29, 2016 I attended the Combined Annual Training Camp (CATC) at Ujire, Karnataka. It was organised by the 5 Karnataka Naval NCC, Mangalore. Those 10 days were a great learning experience for me. There were around 500 cadets (both boys and girls) of Junior and Senior division attending the camp. At the end of 10 days of exhausting physical and mental activities, I won the Best Cadet Award, Best Cadet in Academics Award and third prize in 1600 m race. In volleyball and skit, the team events, we bagged the first prize. Before going for the camp, I never imagined that I would be able to perform that good.

But I liked night duties, stay in tents and handing the management of food because most of the cadets at the camp were only fluent in Kannada and on the other hand I did not know even a single word of it. One day I was asked to command a group of eight cadets in cleaning rifles, and most of them were schoolchildren. When we reached the room where rifles were kept, I realized that they are unable to understand what I was saying because I was speaking English. That day I realized that sign language is the best. Interestingly, on the first day of the camp, I did not have my nameplate. I took a spare nameplate from one of my friends and pasted a white paper on it and wrote my name on it. That made all the difference at the end because a nameless person can't be the best cadet.

In December 2016, I attended Army Attachment camp (ATC) at Madras Engineering Group and Centre (MEG&C), Bangalore. We spent 15 days in the Army unit, among serving security personnel. Living inside the campus of a unit which was established in 1780 gives one a completely different picture of life. I got the opportunity to see how Army engineers work.


During my stay at CATC Ujire, I decided to involve myself more in activities outside the class. Since my childhood, I have always inclined towards management. Once I reached the second year, I started my efforts to join a good club where I can make use of and at the same time sharpen my managerial skills. Immediately after the start of my third semester in July 2016, I joined IE&C, sports club, Society of Automotive Engineers and ADA Dramatics. But I was not happy with the work as practically there was nothing new in the management work of these clubs. Then I joined a student project team called Mars Rover Manipal (MRM) in September 2016 which designs and builds next-generation Mars Rovers.


It was a new team then and they participated only once at University Rover Challenge (URC). URC is the premier rover design competition held annually at Mars Desert Research Station (MDRS), Utah, the US. It is organised by Mars Society. At the time of my joining the team, there was no management sub-system so, I got a lot of opportunities in learning new things as all the responsibility was on my shoulders. Besides me, two more members were in the management sub-system. They used to handle graphic designing and website development. Our team achieved 8th and 7th rank at URC 2017 and 2018 respectively. We also achieved rank 1 in Asia. On two occasions, I got the responsibility of handling the shipment of the rover, and it was an unparalleled experience. I realised how painful it is to ship a wooden box from one country to another.


I always wanted to do something during my college days which I can give me joy for the whole life. In January 2018, we participated in the inaugural edition of Indian Rover Challenge at VIT Vellore and won it. It was an effort to have a competition similar to URC in Asia. I took the initiative to host IRC 2019 in Manipal. I knew that it was going to be a tremendous task. By January 2018, I already had 12 members in the management team who I was going to utilize for extra work of the IRC. After multiple discussions, it was decided that a separate team will work for the organization of IRC 2019 because MRM was busy in making rover. After working for 20 months, I left MRM in July 2018. I was made the Event Manager and was given the responsibility to lead the organizing team of IRC 2019. It was something which was never organized in MIT. It had a huge budget if we compare it with other events. I was fortunate to have a great team. Not just the team but the college administration was extremely supportive and at the same time professional too.

I had more than 10 meetings with the Advisory Board which had Director, Joint Director, Associate Director, Assistant Directors and others as its members. The event took place during January 9-12, 2019. It was a huge success. 10 teams from India, Poland and Bangladesh participated. After a year on January 13, I put my phone on the silent mode and had a very sound sleep. As IRC was taking place in different institutes every year, I started my search for IRC 2020 host. I realised that IRC doesn't have a formal body which can handle the technical requirements and search for a host. One day I got a query from a Bangladesh team about IRC 2020 and I did not have an answer then.

After consulting my confidential people from IRC 2019, I decided to form Mars Society South Asia (MSSA). By this time I knew that if I don't step in then the competition won't take place in future and it would be disastrous for the rover teams of South Asia as only a handful of them can go to the US or Europe. I have a habit of consulting everyone in taking decisions, especially the one who is more experienced than me. I am a very social person. During IRC 2019, I met a lot of students from other colleges. Immediately after leaving college on May 8, 2019, I started contacting people associated with other Rover teams. I got a very positive response from everyone. On August 13, I incorporated MSSA a society according to the 1860 Societies Act. The formal launch of the society took place on Ganesh Chaturthi (September 2). We are still in the planning phase of a lot of new activities. IRC 2020 is taking place in VIT Chennai and this year we are also having inaugural South Asian Annual Mars Convention (SAAMCon), January 17-20, 2020. I also worked as HR Head during annual cultural (revels) and technical (tech-tatva) fests of MIT. I was HR for Mechanize category and had 70 students working under me.


What would you consider as the main reason for the success of IRC 2019?

IRC 2019 was a successful event because I had a great team which was always there to work hard and achieve the goals. Some of the teams members were so good that I still take their advice, at times even for personal things too. Also, at the administration level of the college, from director to MRM faculty advisors everyone was very helpful. They took the event very seriously and their guidance and support made IRC one of the best event of Rover Challenge Series.

How has NCC contributed to your overall life/career?

It helps in the overall development of the personality of a person. The way you dress, the way you walk, the way you think about the social issues and fabric of the country. It affects the overall thinking. It makes you fitter, disciplined and punctual. These are the values which you can't learn sitting inside a concrete cube. In NCC you are trained by serving Defence personnel. The experience they carry is unparalleled. Whatever they teach comes from their own experience which carries a lot more weight. You can't learn the value of discipline, unity, integrity, etc. if you don’t adopt that in your day-to-day life.

Is fitness a priority before joining NCC or is that students can improve their fitness after joining NCC?

No, there is no particular fitness eligibility criteria for joining NCC. But yes, once you join, they will try to improve your fitness because they believe that a sound mind lives in a sound body. Also, they do take note of your fitness abilities. They won't ask you to do something impossible. But during drills, obstacle course and training camps they won’t let you sit in a corner. You will have to participate in every physical activity.

How important is building good habits as far as a career in Defence forces is concerned? What are those habits that you built during your NCC tenure which you think has helped you become what you are now?

If someone wants to have a career in Defence, then s/he should have good habits because the training period is very intensive. You can't fake things for 1.5 years. Even after that, you can't fake. It is not a career for those who want to watch movies every Friday or want to wake up late in the mornings. You have to transform yourself from a 'guy' to a 'gentleman'.

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