West Virginia University students win $100K Nasa prize

West Virginia University's robotics team spent 18 months designing, building, and testing the Cataglyphis rover. Named after a desert ant that travels long distances, the Cataglyphis was the first rover to complete the second stage of Nasa's Sample Return Robot Challenge. Credit: Nick Morales/West Virginia University

West Virginia University's robotics team spent 18 months designing, building, and testing the Cataglyphis rover. Named after a desert ant that travels long distances, the Cataglyphis was the first rover to complete the second stage of Nasa's Sample Return Robot Challenge. Credit: Nick Morales/West Virginia University

A team of graduate and undergraduate students from West Virginia University won Nasa’s Sample Return Robot Challenge over the weekend. Their six-wheeled rover Cataglyphis outperformed rovers from 15 other teams to become the first winner of the contest’s level 2 prize - $100,000.

“We worked for nearly 100 hours per week in the time frame between finals and the competition,” grad student Jared Strader said in WVU’s press release. “It’s hard to describe how rewarding it is to see these results today.” 

"It was wonderful to see the teams compete and demonstrate their expertise with autonomous robotic systems," Nasa deputy associate administrator Dennis Andrucyk said in the Nasa press release. "NASA uses competitions like these to help maintain and advance America's leadership in technology and innovation.

Nasa hopes to use robots to bring the first samples back from Mars. This artist's concept shows how a lander-based mission would scoop nearby soil samples. A rocket carries samples to a waiting Mars orbiter. A rover based mission could collect a wider range of geological samples, but Nasa needs smarter rovers to do that affordably. Credit: Nasa/JPL-Caltech

The space agency’s long term plans for Mars exploration calls for a robotic mission to bring samples of the martian surface back to Earth. The trouble is Nasa’s rover engineers aren’t sure how to do that. So far rovers like Sojourner, Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity require a lot of direct commands from scientists and rover drivers at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. That takes time. 

Opportunity took more than 11 years to travel 42 kilometers. Granted, some of that time was spent doing science. But far too much of that time was consumed by committee meetings as the scientists and mission operators decided what to do next. Making rovers more autonomous should reduce that down time and increase the amount of science each mission produces.

Nasa created the Centennial Challenges program to get innovative ideas from universities, small businesses, and hobbyists who aren’t part of the space agency’s traditional circle of contractors. The Sample Return Robot Challenge tasks teams with designing a rover that could autonomously navigate a course, identifying and collecting samples along the way. The teams can’t touch the rover once it starts - there aren’t any mechanics on Mars. If anything does go wrong, the teams must transmit software updates just like JPL’s mission teams.

Worcester Polytechnic University hosts the contest each year at its campus in Massachusetts. The grassy field may not be much like Mars, but the slopes, inclines, and stretches of gravel pose a challenge as difficult as any Mars rover will find. In the contest’s first phase, each rover had 30 minutes to locate and collect one sample and return to its starting point. In the second phase, each rover had 2 hours to locate and collect two samples. Points were awarded based on the difficulty of finding the sample - teams only knew what some of the samples would look like. 

The contest has a $1.5 million prize purse. Teams that complete Level 1 can win up to $5,000. The Level 2 competition follows a more complicated award formula, but the top 3 teams could end up splitting over $1 million. (Teams from other countries can compete in the contest, but can’t receive prize money) Nobody won any prizes in 2012. Only one team - a group of private citizens from California - earned a Level 1 prize in 2013. Another - WVU - did the same in 2014. West Virginia University’s Cataglyphis was the only robot to complete Level 2 in this year’s challenge, earning $100,000 based on the samples it recovered.

Cataglyphis in action. (really) Credit: Nick Morales/West Virginia University

“WVU is walking away with a win because they combined the smarts from the software, mechanical and electrical parts of their system,” Monsi Roman, Nasa’s director of the Centennial Challenges program, told WVU. “But most importantly, they won because they worked collaboratively and had a very strong project management team to guide them.”

According to WVU, the prize money will seed an engineering scholarship fund for the school’s robotics program. Glen Cilento, dean of WVU’s engineering school, said “I’m proud of the effort they put forward and how well they performed in this year’s competition. They have made the Statler College and WVU a recognized name nationally in the field of robotics.”