NASA calls on researchers to build smarter space robot

Challenge focuses on building robot that can find and collect samples on Mars, asteroids

NASA launched a $1.5 million competition to see who can build the best space robot.

The space agency announced Thursday that it's teaming with Worcester Polytechnic Institute to challenge teams from academia and industry to build a smart robot that can locate and retrieve geologic samples while maneuvering over rugged terrain on an asteroid or Mars.

Registration is open for the competition that will be judged in June 2014. For the challenge, dubbed the Sample Return Robot, NASA is putting up the $1.5 million in prize money, which will be dispersed among teams who complete certain levels of the competition. More information is available from the WPI website.

"The objective of the competition is to encourage innovations in automatic navigation and robotic manipulator technologies that NASA could incorporate into future missions," said Michael Gazarik, NASA's associate administrator for space technology, in a statement. "Innovations stemming from this challenge may improve NASA's capability to explore an asteroid or Mars, and advance robotic technology for use in industries and applications here on Earth."

This isn't the first time NASA has looked outside its own walls for robotic assistance. Earlier this year, the space agency awarded $5,000 to Team Survey of Los Angeles for successfully completing a 2013 Sample Return Robot Challenge. NASA noted that it expects the 2014 challenge will advance progress already made and expand the field of competing teams.

NASA wants to advance its robotics technology, which has been behind much of its exploration of Mars.

The NASA rover Curiosity, which just marked one year on the Martian surface, was tasked with determining whether the planet had ever supported life, even in small microbial form.

To accomplish its work, the rover, which has 10 scientific instruments and 17 cameras, used its robotic arm to scoop up soil samples and drill into Martian rocks. NASA engineers send instructions to the rover on where and how far to drive.

Jennifer Trosper, NASA's deputy project manager for the Mars Science Lab Mission, in a recent interview, said that within a month, Curiosity should be traveling longer distances in its daily drives because the rover will be able to do more decision-making on its own. NASA will be sending Curiosity additional software in order for it to perform auto-navigation.

Trosper said giving the rover the ability to make some of the driving decisions on its own will enable it to travel farther and faster.

This article, NASA calls on researchers to build smarter space robot, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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