Autonomous robots created by 11 teams of engineers from across the country will compete for a NASA prize purse of $1.5 million on the campus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute, in Worcester, Mass., June 14 -17.
The challenge: design and develop the next generation of robots to explore the landscapes of other worlds.
The NASA-WPI Sample Return Robot Challenge requires the competing teams to design and build an autonomous robotic system that will locate and collect a set of specific objects from a large area and return the “planetary samples” to the starting zone.
The innovative technologies the teams bring forward can help NASA in future exploration of distant planets while also potentially benefiting life here on Earth. Earthly benefits could include areas such as disaster recovery and mitigation and remote exploration and mapping of hazardous terrains.
The NASA-WPI Sample Return Robot goals are to discover innovative new technologies to advance robot navigation and sample collection without human control, and demonstrate robotic transportation over varied terrain without the aid of GPS or other Earth-based systems. The competition also will empower educators and people of all ages by introducing robotics and how they work, where they work, and real-world applications of how robots will be used the future.
The competition’s roving area includes open rolling terrain, soft soils, a variety of rocks and immovable obstacles such as trees, large rocks and water hazards. Teams will be given maps with appropriate orbital resolution, including the location of the starting position and a pre-cached sample, but will have no control of the robots during the competition.
Robots will have to identify and collect samples and return them to their starting point. Samples will have different point values. Prizes will be determined based on the scores for the number and point value of samples collected and returned to the starting location.
During the first phase of the competition, a robot must autonomously navigate and retrieve a pre-cached sample within 15minutes. Teams will compete for portions of a $50,000 total prize purse, with a maximum winning value of $5,000 per team.
In the second phase, a robot must autonomously navigate and retrieve pre-cached samples as well as other, more difficult samples distributed over the roving area within two hours. Teams will compete for up to $1.5 million during this phase, with awards depending on the amount of points scored and number of successful competing finalists.
WPI is the first university selected as host and manager for one of NASA’s Centennial Challenges Programs, which promotes technical innovation through novel prize competitions. NASA chose WPI to run this Centennial Challenge because of its proven experience managing robotics competitions, its academic expertise in robotics engineering, and its leadership in science, technology, engineering and mathematic education.
NASA uses prize competitions to establish important technical challenges without having to specify the approach that is most likely to succeed, while only paying for successful results. These competitions increase the number and diversity of individuals, organizations and teams that are addressing a particular problem or challenge of national or international significance. These challenges stimulate private sector investment many times greater than the cash value of the prize.