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Space Robotics

NASA Prizes for Builder and Flyer Robots 74

Posted by Zonk
from the more-weapons-for-my-droid-army dept.
FleaPlus writes "NASA has recently announced a couple more X-Prize-style Centennial Challenges. The first is a Telerobotic Construction Challenge, for using a team of robots to assemble structures from building blocks with minimal human intervention. The second is an Planetary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Challenge, to create a robot which can fly a path using visual navigation and hit ground targets with a probe (no GPS allowed). Rules are still being finalized, with the contests scheduled for 2007. Both prizes are for $250,000, the max Congress is allowing NASA to offer."
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NASA Prizes for Builder and Flyer Robots

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  • by Punboy (737239) * on Saturday December 03, 2005 @06:35AM (#14172863) Homepage
    These tasks are probably much more complex than the Ansari X prize... which rewarded 40 times this much. Offering $250K is insane. Stupid. Insanely Stupid.
    • These tasks are probably much more complex than the Ansari X prize... which rewarded 40 times this much. Offering $250K is insane. Stupid. Insanely Stupid.

      The size of the prize is only part of the interesting thing here.

      Notice that that the X Prize http://www.xprizefoundation.com/about_us/mission.a sp [xprizefoundation.com] sponsored an interesting, significant step in manned space travel, whereas the NASA competitions specifically promote unmanned space travel technology. The DARPA Grand Challenge http://www.darpa.mil/grandc [darpa.mil]

    • These tasks are probably much more complex than the Ansari X prize... which rewarded 40 times this much. Offering $250K is insane. Stupid. Insanely Stupid.

      Nah the telerobotics competition is easy when you tend to think about the problem for a while. You have to remember that with the time delay from the earth to the moon it's still possible to control a vehicle via remote control. It's annoying but still not within the realm of doable. In fact the Russians did that with one of their probes.

    • The reason why the prize is so small is, in a nutshell, politics. Lets face it, the average politician barely knows more than the average citizen when it comes to space exploration, AI development or anything that requires a prototype. The net result is a government which lowers the value on science leaving private companies to pick up the pieces.
  • Fixed prize limit? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Bombula (670389) on Saturday December 03, 2005 @06:41AM (#14172880)
    $250k is a not a whole lot of money. I'm not sure how many outfits would be able to get something out of the design stages without more money than that, so this prize would most likely not even cover costs.

    That may not be the point, but it would sure be nice to at least have the development costs for projects like this covered by prize money.

    • by massivefoot (922746) on Saturday December 03, 2005 @06:52AM (#14172900)
      I think the unmanned aerial vehicle might be doable for that cost. I mean, the hard bit is the AI. Other than that you've just got a model aeroplane being controlled internally rather than be someone on the ground with a transmitter.

      Of course you need to know how far it has to fly etc, but IMO it can't cost over £10k to build the airframe. The programme to fly it wouldn't be too hard either, the only hard part is that it needs to know where it is and what orientation it's in . Yhe latter is trivial - use a giro like any other aircraft would. The former could probably be done by taking either a stereo image from two cameras mounted on the wing tips, or useing some sort of downward looking radar, to create a 3D picture of the local terrain, which could then be matched to a map held in memory and a "best-fit" obtained.
      • 10k? I can build you a plane capable of carrying a 5 pound laptop and 4 cameras a hundred miles for under USD1000, as can any of a thousand other rc enthusiasts. Autonomous UAVs have been WELL within the realm of hobbyist flight for a decade, its just the AI that is missing.
        • Thanks for clarifying the cost there. I'm a pilot, but I have only a limited knowledge of RC aircraft. I'm interested by your claim of a 100 mile range, what sort of size would the aircraft be? Also, what would you be using for engines? I was under the impression that turbines for model aircraft cost several thousand pounds. Or do you think either glow/petrol driven props would be a better idea? Which would give the longest endurance? It might also be worth considering whether the cameras could work with t
          • by Skyfire (43587)
            I do a fair amount of work with small UAVS (10-20 foot wingspan), and a 2-stroke powered propeller is definetely the way to go. Its been done for decades with success, its far more fuel efficient than small gas turbines (For subsonic speeds, all propulsion systems benefit from economies of scale. In general, the bigger the area of air being accelerated, the more efficient it is. Thats why the turbofans on modern airliners (B-777) are so large.), and parts are cheap and readily available. I question the
          • For maximum efficient endurance I am not sure if I would go with gas or glow engines or electric motors. The advances in lithium polymer batteries recently have made ultra high endurance electric sailplanes a reality. Hour+ flight times at 30+mph on a here.
          • (ignore immediately previous post, extraneous < ruined it.)

            For maximum efficient endurance I am not sure if I would go with gas or glow engines or electric motors. Definitely not turbines. The advances in lithium polymer batteries recently have made ultra high endurance electric sailplanes a reality. Hour+ flight times at 30+mph on a plane with a 4-6' wingspan that costs under $200.

            As to cameras, youll find that with a proper mount there is no need to shut down the engine except for the most high res
      • You're kidding, right?

        Building a plane that can fly on another planet is so insanely difficult that NASA themselves gave up - they had wanted to fly a plane on Mars for the centenary of the Wright brothers' first flight.

        Assuming the target planet is Mars; let's look at some of the challenges involved:

        1) The atmosphere is *much* thinner. That's a fairly huge problem for starters. Maybe you could make the wings bigger, but how much? And if you do, they may respond in a completely different way to "normal" siz
        • Well their prize only requires that your plane fly on Earth. However, you've raised some interesting points, I suggest you go to www.x-plane.com and download the demo. It lets you fly on Mars (or at least the previous versions did, I assume the new one also does). There are two aircraft included in it that can fly on Mars, but they handle very oddly and you're right, you need huge wings.
          • I did find out shortly after I posted my original comment that this challenge only applied to Earth-bound planes, but in that case, what's the point? Even if someone won the contest, their plane would be useless on another planet.

            Apart from all the mechanical aspects, it's doubtful that even any software would be useable, due to the fact that other planets look very different from Earth. For eaxmple, in terms of visual navigation - Mars is well, red - much less contrast. And Venus, well, good luck even seei
      • by acaspis (799831)
        it can't cost over £10k to build the airframe

        Extra points if your design scales to the low-density atmosphere of Mars, and can fly slow enough to do the probe thing.

        the only hard part is that it needs to know where it is and what orientation it's in

        Well, that pretty much sums up one of the most painful problems in robotics.

        Yhe latter is trivial - use a giro like any other aircraft would

        No. Gyros drift. Aircraft autopilots rely on other things, like radio beacons on the ground, or GPS. Or t

        • You're right, giros do drift, but for some reason the attitude indicator giro in a light aircraft never seems to need reseting. The timescale such an aircraft flys over is long enough for drift to be significant (the directional giro does need realigning with a magnetic compass regularly), but the attitude giro does not. I've never been able to find a stisfactory explanation for this, anyone got one?

          And no, a basic aircraft autopilot does not rely on radio beacons (the autopilot still works if the ADF, V
          • the attitude indicator giro in a light aircraft never seems to need reseting

            So the artificial horizon does not need realigning, but the heading gyro does. Interesting. Are you really talking about a gyro-based attitude indicator ? Could it be that it aligns itself with gravity over long periods of time ? Or is it the old mechanical, floating sphere kind ?

            or the sun (a rather novel idea, but not much use at night).

            Not really the sun itself. But I believe infrared sensors have been used successfully to

            • Yup, the attitude indicator is definately a gyro. It's usally a vacuum gyro, meaning it's spun up via a pump driven by the engine. Before engine start, it'll be giving a false reading in one of the corners (eg. most nose down, left bank reading it can give).

              When the engine starts it'll wobble for a few seconds, then settle down to the correct reading. At this point you turn a small knob to make a small adjustment to the pitch indication (you're putting the "nose level" bar in the right place, not moving
      • I think the unmanned aerial vehicle might be doable for that cost. I mean, the hard bit is the AI. Other than that you've just got a model aeroplane being controlled internally rather than be someone on the ground with a transmitter.

        Sure, but knowing NASA, you'll probably end up with something like this in the rules:

        10.4.2.3.1 - Payloads.

        10.4.2.3.1.1 - Size of Payloads.

        Payloads may be no smaller than a cube one meter by one meter by one meter.

        10.4.2.3.1.2 - Weight of Payloads.

        Payloads may be no

    • Four words: Chief Knock-a-Homer [answers.com].
    • Seems like maybe some of the larger companies looking for publicity might be interested, but other than that... probably nobody without an extremely high amount of funding.

      Brian
    • how much does battlebots pay out? also monstergarage gives out a full set of mac tools for each winner with some other assorted stuff. doen't nasa have a larger budget?
  • Matching funds? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Bombula (670389) on Saturday December 03, 2005 @06:44AM (#14172884)
    Since the $250k limit is imposed by congress, maybe matching funds could be sought from private sponsors. Surely some of the big contractors like Boeing and those sorts of guys would be willing to put up some prize money if they might end up getting the big contracts to develop and build the real things?
    • If you complete the contest, you will in all likelihood get some great job or contract offers that will compensate you for the effort.

      The contests really just drive small company and academic research. If a big company enters and wins, they look silly for beating the little guys with lots of money. If they loose, they look even worse.

      The little companies win just by entering. They get exposure and are driven to make relationships with the big companies.

      In the aero and defense industries, I think these co
    • The results could be open to the public.
  • by inflex (123318) on Saturday December 03, 2005 @06:45AM (#14172888) Homepage Journal
    While the prize money isn't a lot, it might actually have an interesting effect in bringing about the less well funded but no less ingenious developers into the foray while the typical high ranking developers/companies pay less attention. It's certainly something I'd be interested in participating in (the aerial navigation).

  • Hmm... (Score:5, Funny)

    by St0rmwarden (759530) on Saturday December 03, 2005 @06:48AM (#14172894)
    I wonder if GTX Global will be entering anything with their "true AI" onboard...
  • by OverlordQ (264228) on Saturday December 03, 2005 @07:22AM (#14172938) Journal
    The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International holds an annual competition named the International Aerial Robotics Competition. In order to win, a team's vehicle must complete these four objectives autonomously, without human intervention:

            * Fly three kilometers along a specified path of GPS waypoints.
            * Search a target area for a marked building; identify the openings and their centers.
            * Enter the building and document specific aspects within its interior.
            * Complete the previous three goals consecutively in less than 15 minutes.


    Yes it's GPS vs Visual, but roughly similar
    • I was involved in my university's AUVSI/IAR team two years ago. I didn't have enough CS background to participate in the development, but I did a lot of work building up and modifying the ARF airframe we purchased for our competition use (that mainly consisted of building new higher-lift airfoils and making mounting arrangements for our camera and control system). I attended meetings and talked to the programmers and from what I know, GPS was almost invaluable in our solution. You can achieve kind-of-the
    • As a past participant in the AUVSI/IARC, I've noticed that only a few teams have tried using a fixed-wing approach. This is likely because the "building entry" requirement is difficult to accomplish without navigating in close proximity to the buildings. Yet since Mars has such a thin atmosphere, one would think that a rotary-wing aircraft would be much less practical for NASA's purposes.

      However, if the NASA competition allows for helicopters, there are several IARC teams that have developed vision-base
  • Military? (Score:3, Informative)

    by Mr2cents (323101) on Saturday December 03, 2005 @07:24AM (#14172942)
    I have just read the robotic competition faq yesterday, and I remember a similar competition there.. I just found it back at http://avdil.gtri.gatech.edu/AUVS/IARCLaunchPoint. html [gatech.edu]. I was just looking for a fun competition so that I have some fixed requirements for building a robot myself, but it's either too advanced or too simple. If anyone knows of a fun competition in Europe, please let me know.

    "Fully autonomous ingress of 3km to an urban area, locate a particular structure from among many, identify all of the true openings in the correct structure, fly in or send in a sensor that can find one of three targets and relay video or still photographs back 3km to the origin in under 15 minutes."

    It looks similar, although the prize money is only $50k, and it's for military use.
    • So it finds a building, locates the entrances, gets in and finds one of three targets and .. takes pictures? This is obviously a paparazzi-bot for conducting character-assassination missions.
      • Didn't you know that the death of Lady Di happened just days after a prototype managed to escape, and that the test target at the top-secret military base was code-named Lady Die? Coincidence? I think NOT! Luckily, since then the army has discovered that fences don't work on flying robots. Also, in order to prevent accidents even if one of them gets loose, they changed the name of the test doll from Lady Die to Mister Chirac, claiming that they have never heard such a silly name in real life. So we should b
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Is the goverment totally attempting to demonstrate how disconnected from reality it has become? I'm trying to understand the reasoning behind these ridiculous terms: Do something incredible hard, mostly for free, no attempt on our part to even pretend to cover a fraction of the cost with the reward money. I'm sorry, why? The goverment hands out billions in Corporate welfare, funds global police actions, but this is their idea of a reasonable way of conducting themselves in some sort of scientifc endevou
  • by PlayfullyClever (934896) <playfull@playfullyclever.com> on Saturday December 03, 2005 @10:08AM (#14173291) Homepage Journal
    I am a high school student, so I believe I am qualified to answer you.

    First, be forwarned. I don't mean to sound cynical, but there is not a whole lot that has to do with science and technology that would excite most students. Even if it does, a lot of people are too scared of being called a "nerd" or a "geek" and thereby having their social status for the rest of the four years ruined to show that excitement.

    There are, however, some. I don't think that a robotics competition is a good idea, however. I don't know about most schools, but at mine there are not a lot of people interested in robotics. Besides, it would take a lot of work, and a lot of the most brilliant people are inherently lazy.

    I think the programming fair was a great idea, however. Every time I write a program to do the simplest thing on my TI-83+ graphing calculator (such as convert celsius to fahrenheit for instance) people gape at me with awe and amazement and ask, how did you DO that? This includes jocks, socialites, and various other groups of people who would normally not be caught dead showing an interest in the "nerdy" fields of computers or technology.

    If you put on a programming fair, you are not going to be able to teach anyone computer programming in a day, but you will spark their interest. Give away a few CDs with C tutorials on them or something, and maybe, just maybe, a few kids will try them out.

    Also, expect the bit-head population to turn out in force at your fair. You can even put some of them to good use, having them help the newbies who have no idea what's going on.

    In conclusion, programming fair=good, robotics competition=bad.
    • I don't think this competition is aimed at high school students in particular.
    • If you put on a programming fair, you are not going to be able to teach anyone computer programming in a day, but you will spark their interest. Give away a few CDs with C tutorials on them or something, and maybe, just maybe, a few kids will try them out.
      Give high school students CDs with C tutorials on them...Ugg..Why don't we just give them crack pipes. I've seen the damage a few months of C programming can do to a yound mind..It is not pretty.
      • Could be worse, he could have suggested Visual Basic for instance.

        There are know known cases of someone who starts programming with Basic going onto becoming a good programmer. There are cases of programmers starting with C going on to become good (though I wouldn't recommend C to beginners either).

        There are good programmers who work with Basic, but they started with something else, and only do Basic because that is where the money is.

    • Ever been to a FIRST robotics competition? Go to one and tell me you can't get high schoolers excited about robots. :)
    • The parent was copied word-for-word from a comment on a story a few months ago on What interests high-school students? [slashdot.org].
    • My first thought is, "this guy likes programming, not robotics". Programming really doesn't seem any less nerdy or more accessible (comparing a sponsored programming fair to a sponsored robotics competition) than robotics.

      Secondly, plagerizing a slashdot post? Good gravy, what is wrong with you?
  • As Scotty would say, "Building a team of robots to assemble structures from building blocks is easy. Teaching them to read the 'easy assembly' instructions, now that's hard!"
  • I'm interested in the limiting rules for the competitions. Why not use GPS?

    I wonder how long it is before someone thinks to throw a GPS net over Mars; with slightly-more-capable satellites, this 'web' could serve as multipurpose GPS, commo net, and safety system. I don't know how much it cost for GPS here, but it seems like a reasonable investment that would greatly accelerate the exploration and use of Mars.
  • by FhnuZoag (875558) on Saturday December 03, 2005 @11:39AM (#14173580)
    The second is an Planetary Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Challenge, to create a robot which can fly a path using visual navigation and hit ground targets with a probe (no GPS allowed).

    There is obviously a military connection here. For probe, read bomb, or bullet. Essentially, it's designing the next generation of autonomous UAVs. Presumeably, our military planners now believe GPS to be possible to compromise in times of war. (fairly reasonable thanks to the new attention on space war)

    What are the ethics of this sort of competition?
    • They could use these to drop packages of cargo, building materials, or supplies. One of the biggest problems NASA has right now is how to create an environment where astronauts can safely travel beyond about 7km from their base (that's around where the current limit is right now, I think, due to life support system capabilities and safety factors). The ability to drop energy stations, refueling stations, oxygen tanks, or whatever remotely would be pretty invaluable.
      • They could use these to drop packages of cargo, building materials, or supplies.

        Isn't this also a miliyary use? Wasn't the DARPA Grand Challenge meant to do the same thing with ground-based vehicles to move supplies toward compat positions?

        From the FIP (Introductory Paragraph?):

        Both prizes are for $250,000, the max Congress is allowing NASA to offer.

        I wonder if NASA could subcontract this to DARPA, which could then offer a couple million dollars for each prize.
  • This is a good step towards construction of a lunar or mars base. I was hoping for something that would get Caterpillar [cat.com] or Terex [terex.com] involved, though.

    Also - are these structural building elements the standard concrete cinderblocks (CMU) that are used to build shopping malls, etc?

    Chip H.
  • No pusher robots?
  • by jovlinger (55075) on Saturday December 03, 2005 @12:52PM (#14173869) Homepage
    It's great for pushing things
  • You realize this is only one robotic generation away from pusher and shover robots, right? Hello! Nasa, an arm of the unstoppable goverment that needs to PUSH stuff into space! I hope my grandmother does not live to see the day.

    ---gralem
  • I think that this is necessary in taking the next steps. We've shown that its possible to send rovers to Mars and land on comets etc. The next step is to explore the various orbs in our solar system to identify which are going to be worth sending people to. If you waste billions on a manned mission to planetary body with no worth or return, its just a waste. If you spends millions finding a planetary body that has minerals or water or whatever will give ROI, before sending a manned mission, it is worth it.

Reality must take precedence over public relations, for Mother Nature cannot be fooled. -- R.P. Feynman

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