This week, 18 citizen inventor teams from countries across the world have gathered at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) to put their unmanned systems to the test for NASA’s Sample Return Robot Challenge, one of NASA’s Centennial Challenges designed to further innovation by engaging the public in advanced technology development. Nearly $1.5 million in prize money is available in this challenge. The awards ceremony will take place tomorrow during WPI’s TouchTomorrow festival, an event highlighting science, technology and robots, and featuring displays, interactive exhibits, games, educational speakers and presentations, and more.
The objective for teams to accomplish is to demonstrate a system with “an autonomous capability to locate and retrieve specific sample types from various locations over a wide and varied terrain and return those samples to a designated zone in a specified amount of time with limited mapping data.” The challenge encourages the development of automatic navigation and robotic manipulation technologies. Advancement in these areas not only has potential applications for space exploration, but for robotic technology used on Earth.
The challenge consists of two competition levels; a team cannot participate in level two unless it has successfully completed level one. In the first level, the robot must return one specific undamaged sample to the starting platform within 30 minutes. In level two, the robot must return at least two undamaged samples, including the specific sample, to the starting platform within 2 hours, with additional limits potentially imposed for mass and power. The competition area features a variety of terrain, including open land, granular and soft soils, and various immovable obstacles such as trees, boulders and water hazards. Teams were given topographic maps indicating the starting location and site of the specific sample.
Participants include Survey of Los Angeles; Wunderkammer Laboratory of Topanga, Calif.; Intrepid Systems of Lynnwood, Wash.; the University of Waterloo of Ontario, Canada; AERO of Worcester, Mass.; Fetch of Alexandria, Va.; Kuukulgur of Estonia; Middleman of Dunedin, Fla.; the University of California Santa Cruz Autonomous Rover Team; Cephal of Pittsburgh; Formicarum of Worcester; the West Virginia University Mountaineers of Morgantown; the Oregon State University Mars Rover Team of Corvallis; the Retrievers of Schenectady, N.Y.; RPI Rock Raiders of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y.; Stellar Automation Systems of Marietta, Ga.; Sourcerors of Pittsburgh; and Lunambotics of Mexico City.
Unmanned systems have been a strong growth area for the defense community over the past several years, ranging from aerial systems to autonomous ground vehicles. These systems have great use in completing tasks that are frequently referred to as “dull, dirty or dangerous”—able to reduce risk to the human operator by entering potentially hazardous situations such as ordnance disposal, or provide persistent surveillance for lengths of time that would be untenable for human eyes. As the technology continues to advance and evolve, it is likely that even more roles will be found for robotic systems to complement manned operations, and events such as NASA’s Centennial Challenge are a promising way to explore their potential capabilities. ♦