Nasa Sample Return Robot Challenge

Nasa will award teams up to $1.5 million to build autonomous robotic rovers that can navigate an unfamiliar terrain and collect samples in the Sample Return Robot Challenge. Teams of amateur robotics enthusiasts, robotics engineering students, and private industry come to the Worcester Polytechnic Institute once a year to compete in Nasa’s.

Nasa created this challenge to solve a problem in robotic space exploration: driving rovers takes time. A lot of time. The rover drivers at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory only let their rovers move in brief traverses across the martian surface. The rover then stops, takes pictures of its surroundings and sends the pictures back to Earth. The rover team pores over the pictures to make sure the way forward is safe before sending the command to drive another short distance. Nasa can’t afford to drive its rovers over a cliff or get them stuck in sand dunes. The Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity, for example, could travel up to 100 meters at a time - less than the length of a football field - but most “safe” traverses are only 40 meters. Nasa wants to make future rovers more independent. One year after landing on Mars Curiosity’s mission planners activated autonav which lets the rover map its own course across Mars. 

Future rovers will need to be even more automated as they search for and collect samples to send back to Earth. The Sample Return Robot Challenge lets Nasa find new and innovative ways of doing this from people outside the traditional space industry. Teams design robotic rovers that can find and collect samples from an 8 hectare (20 acre) course without any human help or GPS. If the robot retrieves its first sample within fifteen minutes, the team can win one of ten $5,000 Level 1 prizes. As much as $1.5 million is on the table for teams whose robot meets the Level 2 goals and retrieves all of the samples within two hours. All team members must be US citizens in order to qualify for prize money, but International teams may still participate.

Registration for the 2014 Sample Return Robot Challenge opened in August 2013. Early registration closed in January 2014 and later registration closed March 2014. Teams from across the United States have registered as well as teams from Canada, Mexico, and Estonia. The teams participating in the challenge must provide regular progress reports to show they are on schedule and that their design complies with the contest’s rules. The challenge begins June 9 at Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

None of the eleven teams that competed in the 2013 Sample Return Robot Challenge won a Level 2 prize, but Los Angeles-based Team Survey won the first $5,000 Level 1 prize. That leaves $1,495,000 in prize money waiting for some lucky robot to collect.