$250,000 Prize for Semi-Autonomous Robots

As part of its Centennial Challenges, NASA has encouraged inventors from outside the agency to demonstrate out of the box thinking. So far they’ve created challenges to craft better gloves, dig lunar soil, and power climbing robots. The next challenge is called the Telerobotic Construction Challenge, and offers a $250,000 purse to the team that can get their remote-controlled robots to build structures… on Mars. Of course, the robots won’t actually be on Mars, but for the teams involved, it’ll sure feel like they’re a world away.

The challenge will be for teams to develop semi-autonomous robots that can build a pipeline between a water source and a storage tank. The tub and tank will start out right next to each other, but then the robots will have to reposition them at least 25 metres away. The robots will then need to build a pipeline between the “source” and the storage tank, dealing with all kinds of obstacles, like rocks, canyons and sand traps.

This would be a difficult enough challenge for remotely controlled robots; however, to simulate the communications lag between Earth and Mars, it will take 20 minutes for commands to transmit from the operators to the robots. This means the robots will have to make many decisions for themselves.

Teams will have up to 24 hours to get their robots to set up the tank and pipeline, and then transfer 495 litres of water to the storage tank. The first team to succeed will win the prize.

Before the construction phase begins, competitors will be able to send a 10 kg “scout robot” to explore the arena for a day to give teams some idea of the terrain. They can incorporate this data into their software before the actual challenge begins, to give their robots some advance knowledge of the terrain they’ll face.

As with previous challenges, the Telerobotic Construction Challenge is done as a partnership between NASA and the Spaceward Foundation. They’ve published the rules online, and they’re looking to incorporate suggestions before finalizing the rules.

Between June 15th and July 15th, Spaceward will take comments on the rules listed below. To comment, email us at [email protected]. We may possibly publish an interim version (v0.3) on July 7th, and will publish a final rulebook by July 31st, 2006.

The actual competition will happen some time in 2007.

Written by Fraser Cain