At NASA's robot challenge, don't mistake trouble for failure

Teams struggle in autonomous robotics challenge but advances are made

After years of research and late nights, a team of scientists set up their robot Thursday to take on a NASA-funded autonomous robotics challenge.

They switched on their robot, stood back and waited for the machine to begin its two-hour effort.

But the robot failed.

Without ever moving off its platform or moving an inch, the robot's challenge was over for this year.

"We knew immediately," said Fred Zyda, a software developer on Team Survey, a group of individual scientists from Los Angeles. "That was quite disappointing. There's a speaker on the robot that announces what it's doing. We turned it on and it said, 'Cameras failed.' We knew."

Team Survey was participating in NASA's Sample Return Robot Challenge at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Mass. In its third year, 18 teams took on the challenge of building a fully autonomous robot that can traverse an area the size of one- and-a-half football fields, find objects and retrieve them.

NASA is looking for technologies that can help build improved robots that would eventually be used on Mars or on asteroids.

Larry Cooper, NASA's program executive for the challenge, said the space agency isn't likely to use any of the technology demonstrated at this week's challenge, but the teams are heading in the right direction.

"I'm sure we won't use any of these on Mars, though some of the people who worked on the robots may put something on Mars some day," he added.

At the end of the day Thursday, the second day of the contest, not one of the teams had successfully completed the challenge. Most of the teams had planned to have a second try at the tasks on Friday, but expected to delay that until Saturday because of inclement weather.

Don't mistake these problems for failure, though, said Jascha Little, a mechanical engineer on Team Survey.

"It's hard to appreciate how difficult this is," he told Computerworld. "That's just development. We definitely learned a lot of things."

It's been a long road for Team Survey, which successfully passed through Phase One of the challenge last year and was tackling Phase Two this year. The robot was supposed to be searching for objects, which ranged from a blue rock to a red hockey puck and an orange PVC pipe.

To get ready, the team's seven members worked nights and weekends, totaling nearly 40-hour weeks, on top of their full-time jobs, in the past few months leading up to this week's challenge.

Zyda said he didn't mind the long hours because he loves working on interesting problems. Building an autonomous robot -- the hardware and the software to run it -- qualified.

The team used some off-the-shelf software for the three-wheeled robot, which has nine onboard cameras. For instance, they used the Robot Operating System, also known as ROS, open source software that provides basic robotics functioning.

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