New Space and Tech

2013 Sample Return Robot Challenge

By Keith Cowing
April 30, 2013
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2013 Sample Return Robot Challenge
2013 Sample Return Robot Challenge

Fourteen teams from across the country and around the globe are perfecting their hardware and software to compete for $1.5 million in prize money at NASA’s 2013 Sample Return Robot Challenge, the latest competition of the agency’s Centennial Challenges program. The event will take place in June at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass.

The teams will compete to demonstrate a robot that can locate and collect geologic samples from a wide and varied terrain without human control. The objective is to encourage innovations in automatic navigation and robotic manipulator technologies. Innovations stemming from this challenge may improve NASA’s capability to explore a variety of destinations in space, as well as enhance the nation’s robotic technology for use in industries and applications on Earth.

There are two levels of competition, in which a team’s robot must autonomously navigate and retrieve pre-cached samples within a 15-minute (Level 1) or two-hour time limit (Level 2).

This competition will be the second running of this event. At the first event in June 2012, 11 teams registered to compete, narrowing to six as the competition approached. After impoundment of the robots for inspection, one team met the rigorous requirements. The team’s robot competed in Level 1, but no prize money was awarded because it failed to collect the required samples in the allotted time. The Centennial Challenges program does not award funds to competitors unless the challenge objectives have been met. This assures that desired results are gained before government funds are paid.

Returning teams include SpacePRIDE of Graniteville, S.C.; Survey of Los Angeles; Wunderkammer of Topanga, Calif.; Intrepid of Lynnwood, Wash.; and the University of Waterloo from Ontario, Canada. New teams entering the competition are Cyberdyne Systems of Pasadena, Calif., Friends of Elpenor of Arlington, Mass.; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University of Prescott, Ariz.; Fetch of Alexandria, Va.; Middleman of Dunedun, Fla.; Mystic Late Robots of The Woodlands, Texas; Team AERO of Worcester, Mass.; the University of California at Santa Cruz; and KuKuuglur of Estonia.

“Last year, teams were finding their footing and tweaking their designs,” said Sam Ortega, program manager of Centennial Challenges, managed out of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. “This year, we have several teams that know what they’re up against, and they can’t wait to get back on the field. We also have a lot of new competitors who have had the opportunity to learn from the 2012 competition, which will make things interesting and challenging.

“Improving this technology will be a huge boon, not just to NASA for things like exploring other worlds, but to countless applications here on Earth,” said Ortega.

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