Robots compete in $1.5 million NASA contest

Five-year-old Brady Chapman watches a robot from Kuukulgur team from Estonia compete in NASA's 2013 Sample Return Robot Challenge at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts
Five-year-old Brady Chapman watches a robot from Kuukulgur team from Estonia compete in NASA’s 2013 Sample Return Robot Challenge at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts

Eleven robots faced off in a Massachusetts field on Wednesday, showing off their ability to independently track down objects in a hunt for $1.5 million in prize money at a NASA-sponsored contest aimed at speeding technological development.

In the first day of a three-day event, robots designed by teams from the United States, Canada and Estonia set out from a platform in a 2-acre (0.8 hectare) park at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, to search among rolling hills, rocks, trees and a gazebo to find geologic samples.

They operated without human control, with the goal of encouraging advancements in autonomous navigation and robotics technologies, NASA officials said.

“Improving this technology will be a huge boon, not just to NASA and space exploration, but also for countless applications here on Earth,” including industrial purposes, Sam Ortega, program manager of Centennial Challenges, said in a statement.

The Centennial Challenges program, managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is part of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, which develops hardware for future missions.

Robots in the contest will be required to retrieve samples in a range of shapes and sizes, from shoe-box-like forms to objects resembling tennis balls. Prizes range from $100,000 to $1.5 million, depending on the complexity of the samples retrieved.

Organizers chose the park setting to provide real-world challenges to the robots.

At last year’s event, also held at Worcester Polytechnic, no prize money was awarded because the one robot that qualified for the contest failed to collect the required samples in the allotted time.

Robots entered in the contest can weigh no more than 80 kilograms (176 pounds) and measure up to 1.5 meters (about 5 feet) square.

The program caters mostly to citizen inventors, but also small businesses and universities that have developed robots, Ortega said. Cash prizes can be awarded to U.S. citizens only, he said, but the non-monetary “guts and glory” reward remained a strong motivator for entrants, he added.

While NASA does not claim any right to the intellectual property of the winning robots — it encourages winners to start businesses, for example — the agency would like access to it as part of the competition, he said.

Technological innovations that emerge through the contest could help NASA designers overcome challenges in creating robots used in five to 10 years, Ortega said.

 


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