NASA, whose probe Juno made major headlines with its remote photography of Jupiter, is raising the stakes of robo-engineering with a competition that pits students from around the country against each other for a literally constructive purpose. The goal? Design an exploratory robot that can navigate otherworldly terrain worthy of one of the most venerable tech collectives in the world. Though many people, including yours truly, aren’t qualified to meet this challenge, others have stepped up. And out of twenty participating teams, five were able to pass level one of this year’s competition in June, which required teams’ robots to be able to traverse difficult terrain and collect and retrieve certain objects. For their achievements, the five teams that succeeded were awarded a prize of $5,000 each.
Daunting as the previous level of competition may seem, this gizmo gauntlet is far from finished, with the second level set to commence in September of this year. Joining this year’s five victors will be several first stage veterans of the previous year, according to Bloomberg. The second level will involve more challenging iterations of the object collection of the first level and will push competitors closer to the ultimate prize of approximately $1.5 million. Indeed, there’s more than prestige on the line. The Space Robotics Challenge, held in Massachusetts, is just one of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, which include a bundle of scientific and technological goals seeking to incentivize invention. There’s even one that asks researchers to grow “thick, metabolically-functional human vascularized organ tissue in a controlled laboratory environment” in order to help combat the projected health problems of deep space travel in the future.
The Space Robotics Challenge, part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, is a $1 million prize competition to develop the capabilities of humanoid robot dexterity to better enable them to work both alongside and independent of astronauts in preparation for future space exploration. The finalists were selected from a pool of 92 teams from 13 countries. The teams are helped along by the latest innovations in progressive micro actuators
“We are thrilled to have such a huge community of solvers respond to this challenge, and we congratulate the finalists,” said Monsi Roman, Centennial Challenges program manager. “The technology they are developing and testing for robotic systems will be essential to helping our human explorers.”Photo Courtesy of NASA
The Top 20 teams, in alphabetical order, are:
- BIT PLEASE – Cypress, Texas
- Coordinated Robotics – Newbury Park, California
- Mingo Mountain Robotics – Kettle Falls, Washington
- MITs – Tokyo, Japan
- Mystic – The Woodlands, Texas
- Nevermore – Jersey City, New Jersey
- Ring of the Nibelungs – Medford, Massachusetts
- Sirius – South Hadley, Massachusetts
- SpaceBucs – Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
- Space Weavers – San Jose, California
- Team AL v.2.0 – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
- Team Olympus Mons – Barcelona, Spain
- Team Olrun – Evansville, Indiana
- THE HUMANZ ARE DEAD – Boston, Massachusetts
- Walk Softly – Erie, Pennsylvania
- Whalers – Nantucket, Massachusetts
- Worcester Polytechnic Institute Humanoid Robotics Lab – Worcester, Massachusetts
- WV Robotics Team – Fairmont, West Virginia
- Xion Systems – Fresno, California
- ZARJ – St. Paul, Minnesota
The final Live Competition (June 13-16, 2017) will be held in a virtual environment, where teams must program a virtual robot, modeled after NASA’s humanoid Robonaut 5 (R5) robot, to complete a series of tasks in a simulation that includes periods of latency to represent the communications delay from Earth to Mars.
Each team’s R5 will be challenged with resolving the aftermath of a dust storm that has damaged a Martian habitat. This involves three objectives: aligning a communications dish, repairing a solar array, and fixing a habitat leak.
NASA’s Centennial Challenges program is part of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, and is managed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. STMD uses challenges to gather the best and brightest minds in academia, industry, and government to drive innovation and enable solutions in important technology focus areas.
Space Center Houston is a part of the Manned Space Flight Education Foundation, a nonprofit science and space learning center.
NineSigma, based in Cleveland, Ohio, connects organizations with external innovation resources to accelerate innovation in private, public and social sectors.
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Photo credit: Bruce Irving