NASA-WPI Centennial Challenge to be Held June 5-7

June 03, 2013

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From June 5-7 on the campus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), 11 teams of citizen inventors from across the country will once again compete for a purse of $1.5 million. The challenge: design and develop the next generation of robots to explore the landscapes of other worlds.

Last year, WPI was the first university selected as host and manager – officially designated as "Allied Organization" – for a NASA Centennial Challenge event. The Centennial Challenge program was created in 2005 by the space agency to engage citizens, students and small businesses in the development of new technological solutions for NASA and the nation.

"Anticipation is high for a successful sample collection this year," said Sam Ortega, program manager of Centennial Challenges, which is managed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. "Last year, teams were finding their footing and tweaking their designs. 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 have a lot of new competitors signed up. Improving this technology will be a huge boon, not just to NASA and space exploration, but also for countless applications here on Earth."

Ken Stafford, director of the Robotics Resource Center at WPI, said the Challenge competition is a testament to the longstanding rapport between NASA and WPI.

"WPI and NASA have a shared vision for the future of robotics in America and we're thrilled to team up to once again host this extraordinary competition," said Stafford. "This event really showcases the innovative and creative minds from near and far."

The competing teams represent a wide range of experience and expertise from the corporate, academic, and independent arenas. They come from as far as California and Estonia, and as near as Worcester, Mass. Participants and spectators can expect Level 1 competition on June 5 and Level 2 competition on June 6-7.

The Centennial Challenges program does not award funds to competitors unless the challenge objectives have been met. This assures desired results are gained before government funds are paid.

Returning teams this year include SpacePRIDE of Graniteville, S.C.; Survey of Los Angeles; Wunderkammer of Topanga, Calif.; Intrepid of Lynnwood, Wash.; and the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada.

New teams entering the competition are Fetch of Alexandria, Va.; Middleman of Dunedin, Fla.; Mystic Lake Robots of The Woodlands, Texas; Team AERO of Worcester, Mass.; the Autonomous Rover Team of the University of California at Santa Cruz; and Kuukulgur of Estonia.

The challenge begins on the WPI campus Wednesday, June 5, with awards presented Saturday, June 8, if competition objectives are met. The awards ceremony will take place during the day-long TouchTomorrow technology festival hosted by WPI. The festival will showcase the teams and robots as well as NASA and WPI exhibits in science, robotics and space technology. The TouchTomorrow festival is open to the public.

The NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge program has three objectives:

  • Discover innovative new technologies to advance robot navigation and sample collection without human control.
  • Demonstrate robotic transportation over varied terrain without the aid of GPS or other Earth-based systems.
  • 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.

To help achieve this last objective, NASA and WPI will host a workshop on June 6 to train educators in conducting project-based activities that can be used at home and in the classroom. A student event will be held June 7.

Technical Competition

The Sample Return Robot (SRR) Challenge requires the 11 competing teams to design and build an autonomous robotic system that will locate and collect a set of specific sample types from a large area and then return the samples to the starting zone. The roving area will include a variety of terrain and hazards. Pre-cached and other samples will be located in smaller sampling zones within the larger roving area. Teams will be given aerial/geological/topographic maps with appropriate orbital resolution, including the location of the starting position and a pre-cached sample.

The competition is conducted in two phases:

  1. Level 1 Competition – Robots to demonstrate the ability to retrieve a sample within a 30-minute time limit ($50,000 prize purse, $5,000 max per team).
  2. Level 2 Competition – Robots to demonstrate the ability to retrieve at least two samples within a two-hour limit. Samples are categorized as Easy, Intermediate and Hard with higher point values given for samples classified as medium or hard. Prize purse awards can range from $100,000 to the total $1.5 million purse, depending on the amount of points scored and deducting the amount of Level I prizes awarded.

NASA prize competitions seek solutions without having to choose the approach or the team that is most likely to succeed, while only paying for results. NASA prize competitions also increase the number and diversity of individuals, organizations and teams that are addressing a particular problem or challenge of national or international significance, while stimulating private sector investment that is many times greater than the cash value of the prize. Prizes also capture the public imagination and change people's perception of what is possible.

For more information, visit the NASA SRR Challenge website.