WVU team wins NASA robot challenge

A team of 10 engineering students from nearby West Virginia University recently returned victorious to Morgantown after winning the Sample Robot Return Challenge, part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges.

The WVU Mountaineers beat six other teams in the final stage of competition, held Sept. 4-6 at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, to win a $750,000 prize, which the university said is the largest NASA has awarded in the five-year history of the challenge.

“It’s a huge win, a huge event and it will bring a lot of prestige to the college, the university and the students involved in the project,’’ said Mary Dillon, director of marketing and communications for the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

“West Virginia University has shown incredible ingenuity, creativity and team spirit throughout every stage of this challenge,” said Dennis Andrucyk, deputy associate administrator for NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate, in a statement released to the Herald-Standard.

“They were committed to advancing this technology, and we are proud to say that they have done it. Every team that put a robot on the competition field brought us to this moment. We congratulate West Virginia University, and commend all of the teams for their efforts,” said Andrucyk.

It was a long process. A NASA advisory explained the challenge involved five years of competition by more than 40 different teams from around the globe.

“The Sample Return Robot Challenge, part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges Program, aims to encourage innovation in robotics technologies relevant to space exploration and broader applications that benefit life on Earth,’’ according to the advisory.

It continued, “This event brings together tech-savvy citizens, entrepreneurs, educators and students to demonstrate robots that can locate and collect geologic samples from a wide and varied landscape without human control and within a specified time.’’

Previously, teams competed in Level 1 where robots had to return two known sample types from an unknown location within 30 minutes without human control or the aid of Earth-based technologies, such as GPS or magnetic compassing.

In this final round, teams had up to two hours each to locate as many as 10 unknown samples that varied in size, shape, location and difficulty.

The advisory noted NASA’s Centennial Challenges program is part of the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate that uses challenges to gather the best and brightest minds to drive innovation.