The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is promoting robotics innovation through competitions, but it’s not always clear how winning technologies will be used.
The Mountaineers, a team from West Virginia University, won $100,000 by completing Level 2 of NASA’s fourth annual Sample Return Robot Challenge on June 12.
“As we’ve seen this week, pushing the state of the art in robotics will ultimately increase the effectiveness and safety of humans in space and will enable cutting-edge scientific exploration of the solar system,” said Dennis Andrucyk, deputy associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA.
Last year’s challenge required robots to independently find and collect a set of samples and bring them across a 20-acre field back to a starting zone. In Level 1, robots had 30 minutes to find a sample identified by programming and return it. Team Survey from Los Angeles also completed the Level 1 challenge in 2013 and qualified for Level 2.
In Level 2, autonomous robots had two hours to find one sample previously identified and one given on the day of the contest. The samples were varied in size and shape, and the robots had to return them undamaged to the starting zone.
Sixteen students from Morgantown, W.Va.-based WVU worked for 18 months on its robot, named “Cataglyphis” after a desert ant capable of crossing great distances and returning home. NASA is encouraging the development of technologies that could be used on the moon or Mars, but as recent DARPA and Amazon challenges demonstrate, there is a lot of interest in autonomous and mobile systems.
“We are not allowed to use any technologies that are only available to us here on earth. So we are not allowed to use any type of GPS, we are not allowed to use the earth’s magnetic field, any sound or open air type sensors or systems,” said Scott Harper, an engineering student at WVU. “We had to pass vigorous inspections on both or mechanical, our electronics, our software, just to make sure that we meet all the standards.”
“It takes a team who can build a mature mechanical system that allows them to focus on the visual and navigational challenges of the robot to be successful in this competition, and WVU executed those elements well,” said Ken Stafford, director of the Robotics Resource Center at WPI and a competition judge.
NASA looks for unconventional inspiration
NASA’s Centennial Challenges, which began 10 years ago, are intended to reward “non-traditional” sources of technical innovation. They are so named for the anniversary of the Wright brothers’ first flight in 1903. NASA’s budget includes $4 million for each year of the now-annual challenge.
The next contests include the 3-D Printed Habitat Challenge, which NASA is running in cooperation with the National Additive Manufacturing Institute (also known as “America Makes“). Registration is open now. The top 30 submissions will be judged at the 2015 World Maker Faire in New York on Sept. 27.
After that, two awards of $1.1 million each will be awarded to the best use of fabrication technologies to build structural components and to the best fabrication of full-scale habitats using indigenous and recycled materials.
Relying on robotics, but commercialization unclear
Last month’s sixth annual Robotic Mining Competition was a related contest aimed at university students. It required robots to traverse simulated Martian terrain, drill for a sample, and return to a specified location. Judging criteria included dust tolerance, power requirements, and size and weight. Numerous awards included scholarships.
Also, NASA’s Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission seeks to develop a spacecraft that can visit a near-Earth asteroid and move a multi-ton boulder into a stable orbit, enabling astronauts to visit it in the mid-2020s. This is part of the agency’s Asteroid Initiative, which seeks to identify and track threats to humanity.
More on Robotics Competitions and Research
Sending humans to the moon, Mars, or beyond has proven to be politically challenging, expensive, and risky. Communication delays over interplanetary distances have prompted NASA to pursue autonomous robots that can carry out their missions without direct human intervention.
The use of artificial intelligence and ruggedized robots for space exploration is expected to mirror terrestrial developments in search and rescue, military, and material handling robotics.
However, these NASA challenges apparently have a smaller budget than DARPA’s do for public relations and awards, and competitors tend to be students rather than corporate researchers. Businesses interested in acquiring intellectual property or commercial applications will have to look to individual institutions and recruit alumni.
In addition to robots close to home and for the exploration of Mars, NASA plans to spend $30 million next year on advanced robotic expeditions to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Like Saturn’s moon Titan, it is considered a good candidate for hosting life. Multiple robots would need to work together to scan, land on, and take samples from those satellites.
Autonomous underwater vehicles, similar to those being used on Earth but with innovative propulsion and power systems, would explore beneath Europa’s icy crust.