NASA’s Two New Space Robot Contests

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As part of their Centennial Challenge program to “stimulate innovation and competition in solar system exploration,” NASA has announced two new contests for private developers of space robotic vehicles. The Planetary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Challenge involves building a craft that can fly autonomously and navigate using only optical navigation technologies. The Telerobotic Construction Challenge is to develop remote-controlled robots able to assemble a structure from individual building blocks strewn across an arena. The prize for each contest is $250,000.

Announced on December 2nd, 2005, the award for the Planetary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Challenge will go to the team or teams whose autonomous aerial vehicle is able to fly a roller-coaster flight path using only visual navigation systems. Global Positioning System (GPS) satellite network navigation systems like those found in most terrestrial autonomous vehicles are not permitted since obviously GPS will not be available in the targeted operating environments. A successful design would significantly increase NASA’s capability to explore planets with atmospheres.

“This Challenge will promote the development of innovative solutions to the way NASA performs planetary science,” said NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, Scott Horowitz. “Outer space destinations, such as Mars and Saturn’s satellite, Titan, are prime candidates for the types of vehicles that will compete in this Challenge.”

There may be some additional requirements for the contestants including a simulation of taking soil samples at multiple locations by extending and retracting a probe to hit different targets on the ground. The rules, however, will not be finalized until after an internal review at NASA and public comment period. The competition is scheduled to take place in October of 2007.

The Telerobotic Construction Competition was also announced by NASA on December 2nd. It will take place in an arena throughout which structural building blocks are scattered. The winning team or teams will be those who develop and successfully use multiple remote-controlled robots to build the structure. The operators of the robots will only see and communicate with them though equipment that simulates Earth-moon time delays and restrictions. Because of these limitations the robots must be able to work together with only limited human intervention.

“The Telerobotic Challenge may directly affect how exploration is conducted on the moon,” said Horowitz. “If the Challenge can successfully demonstrate the remote assembly of simple and complex structures, many aspects of exploration in general will be affected for the better.”

The competition rules for this challenge will be finalized in early 2006, and the contest will take place over a two-year period starting in August of 2007.

Managed by the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, the Centennial Challenges are a unique series of competitions offering cash prizes in reward for technical innovations that may be ultimately utilized by NASA to support their projects and goals.

Read the Planetary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Challenge press release.

Read the Telerobotic Construction Challenge press release.

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