Robot enthusiasts gunning for $1.5 million NASA Mars robot challenge

A group of 14 robot hobbyists and enthusiasts coming from the United States and one from the European country of Estonia are aiming for NASA’s $1.5 million prize. NASA is trying out the Tony Stark approach: build innovative technology using limited materials and resources. While the researchers would not be building robots locked up in a cave in Afghanistan  they most certainly have to face robot building challenges with very limited resources at their disposal. The aim of the robot building challenge is to bring together the best amateur robot builders and come up with new innovative ideas for creating a robot for martian exploration. Robots are an important tool in the exploration of Mars, to where we have yet to send a manned mission. The robots sent to mars are called “Rovers”, and they conduct tests and gather data that would be important in the event that mankind plans to colonize the planet. Can we see that happening within the next 10 or 20 years? If the earth becomes uninhabitable humanity would turn to it’s neighboring moon and planet to provide shelter.


jim rothrock of wunderkammer laboratory in NASA mars robot building challenge

Jim Rothrock Quit his job as a visual effects artist to focus full time on the NASA Mars robot building challenge with a grand prize of $1.5 million US dollars (photo by John McCoy of LA Daily News)

The Mars Robot Challenge has very high and stringent standards. Nobody has won the prize yet (it could be that NASA doesn’t expect anyone to actually win the prize although the contest only started last year). Only one team from last year’s pool of participants made it out of the first round. The task for the first round is for the robot to get a rock sample and bring it back to the starting point within 30 minutes, without any guidance from earth based technologies such as GPS.


One of the biggest challenge of the robot builders is the software that recognizes objects. The software is a component of the robot’s guidance system, which helps it to navigate its way through rocks and other obstructions that might be in it’s way. Advances in object recognition would greatly enhance our current navigation technologies, making autopilot possible for automobiles, boats, submarines, and tanks. Another big challenge is the weight limit which is set at 80 kilograms. The robot should be able to perform at it’s best pound for pound. The reduced weight of the robot means a reduced payload or more of the robots can be sent in one rocket launch.


Mars Rover Spirit

360 degree panoramic view from the Mars Rover Spirit (photo from NASA JPL) 


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