Pi Robot Contemplates $1.5 Million NASA Challenge

For the past couple of months, Pi Robot has been working with the Silicon Valley ROS team to design, build, and program a robot to enter in the 2015 NASA SRRC Challenge in June 2015.  This contest is meant to loosely resemble the challenges facing the Mars Rover as it searches a large open area for interesting samples (e.g. rocks), picks them up, and stores them on board the robot for later analysis.

This is the fourth annual running of the SRRC which takes place in a large grass field (80,000 square meters) near the campus of the Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Worcester, Massachusetts.  Scattered throughout the field are a number of “samples” that team robots must find, pick up, and store on board the robot.  Once the robot has stored as many of these samples as possible within a 2 hour window, it must return to the home platform.

Samples range from a relatively large 8 cm high white cylinder to a small red hockey puck that lies very low in the grass and is nearly invisible until the robot is a few feet away.  The robot must run completely autonomously from beginning to end and the judges go to great lengths to ensure that no team can remotely control their robot.

Scoring is based on the number of samples retrieved and their level of difficulty.  In the past 3 years, only 2 teams out of 39 have successfully retrieved even one sample.  Each team won $5,000 for their success.  However, if additional samples are successfully located and retrieved, prizes range from $100,000 to $1.5 million.

Our team estimates that the total cost of building a robot and entering the contest is on the order of $20,000-$30,000 including the $3,000 entrance fee.  Needless to say, we are actively seeking sponsorship either in terms of funding or hardware donations.  Team registration is due on Jan 7, 2015 which is a couple of weeks away.  Our team has already invested hundreds of hours writing code and testing various sub-systems.  We have made enough progress that we will likely pay the $3,000 entrance fee and then see how things go over the next 6 months before the contest date.  However, the programming and mechanical hurdles to overcome are monumental.

More details on the contest can be found on the Sample Return Robot Challenge website.

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