Autonomous Robots to Battle for $1.5 Million NASA Prize
NASA 2013 Sample Return Robot Challenge organizers monitor the Wunderkammer team robot during level one of the challenge at Institute Park, Wednesday, June 5, 2013 at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Mass. The annual contest awards up to $1.5 million to the best robots capable of collecting samples on a mock rover drive.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

NASA is offering $1.5 million in prize money this week to inventors who build a robot that can successfully navigate a mock-alien landscape and scoop up geologic samples without any help from human controllers.

While current robotic space explorers like NASA's Mars rover Curiosity can do some work on their own, they are largely reliant on commands from operators sitting in control rooms on Earth. But the goal of NASA's 2014 Sample Return Robot Challenge is to demonstrate tech that would allow robots to autonomously find and collect samples from diverse terrain.

Eighteen teams will participate in the contest starting Wednesday (June 11) on the campus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts. [NASA's Huge Mars Rover Curiosity: 11 Amazing Facts]

Though a lot of money is being offered, NASA will only award funds to competitors who meet the challenge objectives. In last year's competition, NASA only gave out $5,000 to Team Survey of Los Angeles for finishing Level 1 of the challenge. In 2012, no prize money was awarded after just one team of six robots met the requirements after inspection only to fail Level 1.

NASA officials are hoping for greater success this year.

"We are excited to see what these 18 teams can achieve this year, building on the lessons learned during the first two years of the challenge," Sam Ortega, program manager of NASA's Centennial Challenges, said in a statement. "We hope to see broad success with more teams completing Level 1, and that some of those teams are able to tackle the more difficult objectives in Level 2 necessary to take home the big prize money."

For a robot to successfully complete Level 1, it must return one intact sample to its starting platform within 30 minutes, NASA officials said. Teams that complete Level 1 will advance to Level 2, in which the goal is to return at least one more undamaged sample within two hours.

Awards will be presented on June 14 during the TouchTomorrow technology festival on the WPI campus.

The list of returning competitors, courtesy of NASA, includes: Survey of Los Angeles; Wunderkammer Laboratory of Topanga, California; Intrepid Systems of Lynnwood, Washington; the University of Waterloo of Ontario, Canada; AERO of Worcester, Massachusetts; Fetch of Alexandria, Virginia; Kuukulgur of Estonia; Middleman of Dunedin, Florida; and the University of California Santa Cruz Autonomous Rover Team.

New teams entering the competition are: Cephal of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Formicarum of Worcester, Massachusetts; the West Virginia University Mountaineers of Morgantown; the Oregon State University Mars Rover Team of Corvallis; the Retrievers of Schenectady, New York; RPI Rock Raiders of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York; Stellar Automation Systems of Marietta, Georgia; Sourcerors of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; and Lunambotics of Mexico City, Mexico.

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