Teams to Compete for $1.5M in Fifth Year of NASA’s Sample Return Robot Competition


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Twenty-one robotics teams are returning to Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) for a fifth year to compete in NASA’s $1.5 million Sample Return Robot Challenge. The autonomous robotic competition will take place in two stages, with Level 1 from June 7-11 and Level 2 from Sept. 3-7. The event, part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize program, is managed by WPI and hosted on its campus in Worcester, Massachusetts.  

Teams must demonstrate an autonomous robot that can locate, collect and return geologic samples on natural terrain without human control and within a specified time. Levels 1 and 2 vary in allotted time and sample complexity. Teams must successfully complete Level 1 objectives to be eligible for Level 2.

The objective of the challenge is to encourage innovations in autonomous navigation and robotic manipulation technologies. These innovations may enhance NASA's space exploration capabilities and could have applications on Earth, continuing the nation's leadership in robotic technology.

"For the past five years, we have witnessed a steady maturation of autonomous technology from the teams in this competition," said Monsi Roman, program manager for Centennial Challenges at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "Significant advances in this challenge will not only aid NASA’s exploration of deep space, it will transform robotic capabilities on Earth."

The teams come from diverse backgrounds, including university and high school students, small businesses, families and citizen inventors.

Returning teams competing in Level 1 in June are:

  • Army of Angry Robots of Silicon Valley, California
  • Gather of Alexandria, Virginia
  • MAXed OUT of San Jose, California
  • Middleman of Dunedin, Florida
  • Mind and Iron of Needham, Massachusetts
  • National Autonomous University of Mexico City, Mexico
  • Oregon State University of Corvallis
  • Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Rock Raiders of Troy, New York
  • RoboRetrievers of Tampa, Florida
  • Sirius of South Hadley, Massachusetts
  • Smart Move of Clearwater, Florida
  • Smart Tools of Gurnee, Illinois
  • The Retrievers of Schenectady, New York

New teams competing in Level 1 are:

  • 39e of Providence, Rhode Island
  • Alabama Astrobotics of Tuscaloosa, Alabama
  • Team AL of Canada
  • PSU Robo Crew of Plattsburgh, New York
  • Spark of Worcester, Massachusetts
  • Svechdt of Claremont, New Hampshire

This year’s teams will compete for a share of the $1.5 million prize purse, $1.39 million of which is still up for grabs.

In 2013, NASA awarded $5,000 for Level 1 completion to Team Survey of Los Angeles, and to the West Virginia University Mountaineers of Morgantown in 2014. In 2015, WVU was awarded $100,000 for points earned in Level 2. Both teams are eligible to begin the 2016 competition at Level 2 in September.

“WPI’s partnership with NASA continues to spur innovation through these exciting competitions, and we are thrilled to be hosting both of the Sample Return Robot Challenges this year,” said WPI President Laurie Leshin, who previously served as a senior leader in NASA's science and human space flight programs. “These programs celebrate our collective work in advancing critical fields such as space exploration, robotics and scientific research.”

The Sample Return Robot Challenge is managed by NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, part of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). Through such challenges, STMD gathers the best and brightest minds in academia, industry and government to drive innovation and enable solutions in important technology focus areas.

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