WPI Student Robotics Team Wins NASA Competition

May 27, 2011

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For the second time in two years, a Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) student robotics engineering team has taken home first place in a NASA-sponsored competition. The 13-member Team Oryx won this week’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Exploration Robo-Ops Competition. WPI was one of seven universities in the nation that qualified to compete in the elite contest, which was held May 23-25 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The event was organized by the National Institute of Aerospace.

The RASC-AL Robo-Ops competition culminated in a unique, exciting opportunity for teams to test robotic rovers they have built. They had to design and build a planetary rover and demonstrate its capability to perform a series of competitive tasks at the Space Center’s Rock Yard. The prototype rovers had to navigate the Rock Yard’s treacherous “rock field,” climb in and out of “lunar craters,” find their way across “sand dunes,” and charge “Mars Hill.” Each team’s goal was to collect a maximum of 30 rocks of various sizes, shapes, and colors while demonstrating their rover’s versatility, motor skills, and capacity to carry objects of different sizes, shapes, and weight. Teams had to accomplish the relevant tasks in the quickest time—but with a catch: While two team members and a faculty advisor could be on site with the rover, the rover had to be controlled from its respective home campus via a commercial broadband wireless uplink and an on-board rover video camera and sensors. Cameras allowed the transmission of the competition back to the home universities and to the public.

“Team Oryx’s performance exhibited the winning combination of appropriate, innovative design with robust, high-quality actualization,” said WPI Robotics Resource Center Director Kenneth Stafford, who was on site. “The final, critically important aspect was a well thought-out strategy that was flawlessly executed by our WPI control team.”

In the end, only two teams scored at all. Team Oryx’s 46.8-kg. rover collected five rocks, snagged the final bonus (for a total of 32 points), and finished the mission in 53 minutes—with seven minutes to spare. (The second-place team scored only three points.) In addition to winning the whole competition, Team Oryx garnered first place awards in the “presentation” and “high energy” categories. As the top prize-getter, the WPI students won $5,000 along with a stipend to attend this fall’s Desert RATS analog testing event in Arizona, where a NASA-led team will conduct technology development research and demonstrate its state-of-the-art hardware in the desert.

Team Oryx consists of robotics engineering undergraduates Jon Anderson ‘12, Tom Carlone ’12, Ennio Claretti ‘13, Catherine Coleman ‘12, Andrew Cunningham ‘13, Eric Fitting ‘12, Frederick Hunter ‘13, Gregory McConnell ‘12, Tyler Pietri ‘14, Raymond Short ‘12, Michael Fagan ‘12, and Corey Stevens ‘12. Graduate students include Dan Sacco (BS ‘10, MS ‘11) and Ben Roy (BS ‘10, MS ’11). The team is advised by Professor Taskin Padir of the Robotics Engineering Program and the Electrical and Computer Engineering Departments; Robotics Engineering and Computer Science Professor Mike Ciaraldi; and Stafford. Maxon Precision Motors, InterSense Inc., Axis Communications, igus Inc., and Hydro-Cutter were the team’s sponsors. Each group received a $10,000 stipend for materials to build their rover and to travel to Houston to test the rovers under the supervision of NASA judges.

“Winning the competition was incredible,” the team said in a joint statement, “but even more rewarding is the knowledge that we executed the task without any major problems. While all teams faced various challenges, the very limited issues experienced by WPI’s Team Oryx are a testament to our design and practical education received here at WPI.”

This is the second time in almost two years that a WPI-sponsored robotics team has won a NASA challenge. In 2009, Paul’s Robotics, led by undergraduate Paul Ventimiglia, won the $500,000 top prize at NASA’s Regolith (moondust) Excavation Challenge, with its “Moonraker 2.0” robot.

WPI is the only university in the nation to offer bachelor's, master's, and PhD programs in robotics engineering. It also sponsors a host of robotics competitions geared toward children ages 9-18 and developed a robotics innovation competition for college students. In March, WPI was one of 48 locations around the world to host a regional FIRST Robotics Competition.

“Team Oryx’s win demonstrates the excellent preparation and multidisciplinary skills that our students gain from their WPI education,” noted Padir. “WPI students' enthusiasm about robotics, combined with hard work, delivers results not only at these student competitions but also when they join the engineering workforce. Their achievement is a result of solid engineering skills, teamwork, and excellent communications.”