Eight universities have advanced to the next round of "RASC-AL Robo-Ops," a planetary rover robotics engineering competition sponsored by NASA and organized by the National Institute of Aerospace. The teams selected are California State University Long Beach, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge; San Jose State University in California; University of Buffalo in New York; University of Maryland, College Park; University of Utah, Salt Lake City; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg; and West Virginia University, Morgantown.
The 5th Annual Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts - Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Exploration Robo-Ops is an engineering design competition sponsored by NASA's Human Exploration Operations and Missions Directorate and led by Pat Troutman with the Systems Analysis and Concepts Directorate at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.
"We had a good problem this year, eight slots and almost thirty proposals to fill them. Balancing infusion of innovation against design and operations evolution was a challenge in selecting this year's finalists," said Pat Troutman, Human Exploration Strategic Analysis Lead for NASA Langley. "The final eight teams will be extremely competitive, so the course will be a bit more challenging than in the past. Now is the time to push the envelope, and we are confident that these teams will deliver."
During the contest, multi-disciplinary graduate and undergraduate teams are challenged to design and build a planetary rover and demonstrate its ability to perform a series of competitive tasks in an environment that shares characteristics with the surface of the moon and Mars. NASA uses the "Rock Yard" facility at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston to simulate the rough terrain of other worlds during space mission surface operations training.
The big challenge, much like real planetary research, is that students will have to control their creations from afar. Cameras will transmit video from the rovers during the competition at the Rock Yard back to the universities and to the general public. The teams will have to rely on these video feeds, complete with communications delays, to serve as the rover's "eyes and ears." Much like NASA does in real life each team will try to meet specific goals while navigating obstacles under the watchful eyes of the public which will be able to view the live video.
The Rock Yard segment of the RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops contest is worth almost two-thirds of each team's final score. Teams will also be evaluated on the results of their efforts to develop creative public and stakeholder engagement activities related to the competition that demonstrate participatory exploration approaches for future NASA missions. This includes a team blog and a social media presence designed to spark interest from students and the public in planetary exploration and robotics, and their importance in our society.
This selection is the first major milestone in a nine-month development and testing effort for the eight teams. Throughout the 2014-2015 academic year, the teams must meet a series of development check-points to determine that they are on-target to have functioning rovers that can successfully complete all portions of the on-site competition, which is held in June.
By participating in this challenging hands-on competition, students receive real-world experience that parallels what NASA professionals are doing today. Robo-Ops contributes to NASA's efforts to develop a highly skilled workforce, while also obtaining innovative ideas from some of the best student minds in the country.
"Everyone wins here," says Troutman. "NASA gets ideas now on how to best configure future missions and the students get to work on the very NASA missions that they will be in charge of a decade from now."
NASA provides each team with up to $10,000 in seed funding to facilitate rover development. Teams often obtain additional funds from external sponsors to cover the remaining costs, which can approach $100,000 in some cases. Cash prizes are awarded to the top three placing teams, with a total prize purse of $12,000.
For more information about the RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops competition, visit: http://www.nianet.org/RoboOps
For additional information about NASA Langley, please go to: http://www.nasa.gov/langley
For more information about the National Institute of Aerospace, please visit: http://www.nianet.org