NASA Selects WPI as Partner for 'Centennial Challenge' Robotics Competition

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February 07, 2011

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Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) today announced that the university has been selected by NASA to manage the Sample Return Robot Challenge, one of the agency's Centennial Challenges prize competitions developed to help inspire innovative solutions to technical challenges in the aerospace industry. 

This is the first time that NASA has partnered with a university to manage a Centennial Challenge. The Sample Return Robot Challenge is a new competition with a prize purse of $1.5 million. The contest, expected to take place in the spring of 2012, is anticipated to attract hundreds of competitors from industry and academia nationwide.

"WPI takes tremendous pride in being a hub of expertise and innovation within the area of robotics," said WPI President and CEO Dennis Berkey. "So to be chosen by NASA as its partner for the Sample Return Robot Challenge is a great honor. NASA and WPI both saw the promise of this industry early on, and we have invested deeply in growing our programs and growing interest in the field among young people. We are proud to say that many WPI students, faculty and graduates have contributed significantly to the growth of the field."     

The Sample Return Robot Challenge calls upon teams of roboticists to build, program and demonstrate robots that can locate and retrieve geologic samples from a wide and varied terrain— without human control. The objective of the competition is to encourage innovations in automatic navigation and robotic manipulator technologies. Innovations stemming from this challenge are intended to 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 here on Earth. For more information about the Sample Return Robot Challenge, please visit

WPI is currently the only university to offer bachelor's, master's, and doctoral degrees in robotics engineering; in 2007 the university was the first in the nation to offer a bachelor's degree program in this area. Remarkably, within these past four years, Robotics Engineering has become one of the fastest-growing major at WPI. Through its Robotics Resource Center, WPI supports robotics projects, teams, events and K-12 outreach programs. Each year WPI manages at least seven competitive robotics tournaments and has also sponsored programs that foster the use of robots to solve important societal problems and encourage consideration of the societal implications of this new area of technology. For two decades now, WPI has been a partner with the FIRST program, which was founded by alumnus Dean Kamen. Over the years, WPI has provided funding, training and workspace areas for FIRST teams, has led the creation of software platforms for teams, and has set the standard for high-class, low-cost off-season and regional tournaments.

"WPI has significant experience managing robotic competitions and brings extensive subject matter expertise to the partnership, making them a great choice to manage the Sample Return Robot Challenge," said Dr. Larry Cooper, program executive for NASA's Centennial Challenges Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "We look forward to WPI overseeing the competition and bringing together innovative teams with creative problem-solving ideas."

There have been 20 Centennial Challenges competition events since 2005, and through this program, NASA has awarded $4.5 million to 13 different winning teams. The Centennial Challenges seek unconventional solutions to problems of interest to NASA and the nation. Competitors have included private companies, student groups and independent inventors working outside the traditional aerospace industry. Unlike contracts or grants, prizes are awarded only after solutions are successfully demonstrated. Through this program, NASA provides the prize purse, but the competitions are managed by non-profit organizations that cover the cost of operations through commercial or private sponsorships. For more information about the program and descriptions of each of the challenge competitions, visit:

In 2009, a WPI sponsored team—Paul's Robotics—took home first place at NASA's Regolith (moondust) Excavation Challenge, beating out 22 other teams of professional engineers, and college, university, and high school students from across the country, for the $500,000 top prize. The impetus of that competition was NASA's quest for new ideas for excavation techniques that do not require excessively heavy machines or large amounts of power. The contest called for teams to design and build robotic machines to excavate simulated lunar soil, a function that will be an important part of any construction projects or processing of natural resources on the Moon. To qualify for a prize, a robot had to dig up and dump at least 150 kg of regolith within a 30-minute period. The victorious team was led by Paul Ventimiglia, a WPI robotics engineering major and head of Worcester-based Paul's Robotics, and was made up of WPI faculty, staff, students, and alumni who designed, built, and programmed the winning "Moonraker 2.0" robot, which collected and dumped 439 kg of regolith.