Eleven teams from the U.S. and overseas will gather for the challenge on June 5 through 7 at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Mass. The Sample Return Robot competition is part of NASA's Centennial Challenges program launched by the Space Technology Mission Directorate, which develops and tests hardware for use in NASA's future missions. NASA said the goal of the challenge is to encourage innovation in autonomous navigation and robotics technologies, which the agency could potentially use to explore a "variety of destinations in space" and in "industries and applications on Earth."
The competition consists of two levels. To compete in level one, a robot will have to independently travel from a starting point in search of a sample that has been identified by its onboard computer. It will then have to bring an undamaged sample to the starting point within 30 minutes.
[ Meet IBM's "Engagement Advisor," a computer that can take customer complaints. Read Watson Gets Call Center Job. ]
If able to complete the first level, teams will move on to level two, which requires a robot to return two undamaged samples -- including the pre-cached sample -- to the starting point within two hours.
NASA will categorize the samples as easy, intermediate or hard, based on their shape, size and design. Teams will receive higher point values for hard samples. The prizes range from $100,000 to $1.5 million, depending on the points a team scores. The agency, however, will not award any funds unless contestants have met the challenge objectives. This approach allows NASA to get the results it wants before spending government funds.
The first Sample Return Robot Challenge took place in 2012, also at WPI. Six teams were chosen to compete, but only one, SpacePRIDE of Graniteville, S.C., met the contest's requirements following robot inspections. The robot competed in level one, but failed to collect samples during the allotted time. NASA didn't award any prize money that year.
SpacePRIDE is returning to this year's competition, along with a team called Survey of Los Angeles and Washington-based Intrepid, among others. "Last year, teams were finding their footing and tweaking their designs," said Centennial Challenges program manager Sam Ortega in a written statement. "This year, we have several teams that know what they're up against, and they can't wait to get back on the field."
The Sample Return Robot Challenge is just one of many efforts by NASA to improve robotics technologies for interplanetary exploration. Last year, the agency invested $2.7 million to launch eight advanced robotics projects to develop machines that can work alongside humans on space missions. NASA was also a major sponsor of this year's FIRST Robotics Competition, an international high school contest where students get real-world engineering experience.