Tech by VICE

NASA Ran a Treasure Hunt for Robots to Develop Space Exploration Tech

Robots in the sample return challenge had to collect hidden rocks without human guidance.

by Victoria Turk
Sep 6 2016, 5:35pm

Erica Tiberia of one-woman Team AL with her robot. Image: NASA HQ PHOTO/Flickr

Over the past few days, a bunch of robots have taken part in a very serious treasure hunt.

The final stage of NASA's Sample Return Robot Challenge saw seven rover-style robots attempt to autonomously find, pick up, and deliver hidden samples (coloured rocks strewn across a grassy field) for a $1.36 million prize.

Having a robot capable of discovering and collecting interesting samples by itself could have obvious applications in robotic space exploration, such as sampling terrain on Mars.

The competition took place at Massachusetts' Worcester Polytechnic Institute and was livestreamed by NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center, where it viewed like a cross between a particularly tame Robot Wars and a bizarre game of golf, complete with enthusiastic commentators and digital scorecard.

Read More: Mars Curiosity Rover Can Now Autonomously Decide What to Laser

In the final, which represented the culmination of five years of competition between 40 teams, the top seven robots had to autonomously find 10 unknown samples, which ranged from easy (a painted rock) to difficult (a "non-ferrous object"), and return them to a home base. They had to navigate over different terrains and dodge obstacles such as trees during their two-hour search, accruing points for each sample safely returned. They were not allowed to use any Earth-based systems like GPS.

Here's one robot by Team Survey from Los Angeles picking up an object:

Image: NASA MSFC/Ustream

In a presentation at the conclusion of the event, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden celebrated the diversity of teams who participated. As one of NASA's "Centennial Challenges", the competition was open to the public and designed to attract citizen scientists and smaller entrepreneurs. "Some are students; some are professional people in other lines of work; there was a one-woman team," said Bolden. "I think that is what the program was all about—it's trying to take citizens and help them understand that they too can be engineers."

The judges ended up awarding three prizes, with the first place going to West Virginia University Mountaineers, second to California team Maxed Out, and third to Team Survey.

The Mountaineers secured their win by successfully collecting five samples and earning 11 points with a rather nippy six-wheeled robot. The robot particularly impressed with its first collection of a small, hard sample worth five points, which commentators initially couldn't see. Rather than a robotic arm like Team Survey, it places a box over samples to scoop them up.

Image: NASA MSFC/Ustream

While the competing rovers were clearly space-inspired, the challenge was also intended to push innovation in tech that could be useful closer to home. In his speech, Bolden highlighted the potential application of the West Virginia University Mountaineers' robot to help pollinate plants in face of a shortage of honeybees.