NASA has learned the effectiveness of looking for innovative engineering ideas and solutions by designing robot competitions that have requirements similar to real problems. Examples of these robot challenges include the Lunabotics Mining competition and the Centennial Challenge Program.
(Picture source: www.nasa.gov)
NASA annually holds the Lunabotics Mining Competition to promote university-level development of robots to meet the challenge of excavation of regolith. Regolith, which is found on most planetary bodies, is soil with the texture of very tightly packed talcum powder. The California Space Agency provides what NASA calls the “sandbox” which is filled with 16 metric tons of a regolith simulant. Other complexities of the challege include the weight and size limitations, dust tolerance, energy requirements, and full autonomy of the robot. NASA’s goal in holding the competition is to encourage the development of concepts that could be used to mine resources from planetary bodies such as the moon, asteroids, and mars. New robotic miners will allow for the collection of samples to provide valuable information and help NASA prepare for other deep space missions.
Another annual program designed to engage the public in advancing technology is the Centennial Challenge which was initiated in 2005. The program offers prizes for the creation of robotic solutions to problems that are being faced by NASA and the nation. The 2005 challenge offered $50,000 to encourage inventors to develop a Space Age tether and a wireless method for powering robots that could climb to the top of a 50-meter cable in less than three minutes. While the purpose of the 2005 competition was for the advancement of wiresless power that would help to fuel robots and human exploration equipment on long-term missions, each challenge presents a new problem for solving.
Robot challenges provide benefit beyond advancing aerospace technology of value for NASA’s missions. In return, robot competitors develop or expand business models, and Allied Organizations conducting the challenges for NASA are able to introduce their mission to a large national audience. The challenges promote innovation, opportunity, and communication.