The WVU robotics team is going out of this world as it moves on to the final round of the Space Robotics Challenge, a two-year long NASA Centennial Challenge, to compete for a $185,000 grand prize.
To qualify for this final round, the team competed in the Space Robotics Challenge Phase 2. This phase of the competition required the team to design autonomous robots to aid in a simulated in-situ resource utilization mission to the moon, a process that involves gathering and using materials unique to other worlds.
“The challenge is that we would want to have future autonomous robots be capable of going out and finding materials that are valuable for things such as building structures or making rocket fuel,” said Jason Gross, associate professor and associate chair for research in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering and robotics team leader. “The competition was centered around that theme.”
Phase 2 was broken into three unique problem-solving tasks, including successfully locating and reporting the locations of valuable resources using the team’s virtual lunar rover, extracting and collecting those resources, and transporting them.
Gross said the initial competition was open to anyone who wanted to compete, drawing in 114 teams from all over the world. WVU’s team finished in the top 22 and was one of six to be awarded $15,000. After scoring 35 points with the baseline to qualify for the final round set at 20 points, the team has high hopes for the final round.
“When I learned we were in the top six teams out of 114 teams in the competition that qualified, I was really happy,” said Cagri Kilic, a team member and aerospace engineering Ph.D. student. “We are competing at the international level... It’s difficult to get this success.”
Gross said any prize money received will be used to support research and education initiatives in robotics at WVU. He said the money received so far will likely be used to help the team through the final round, including investing in computers or other equipment.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Gross said they quickly found alternatives that allowed them to work remotely while still working efficiently. He said because of the pandemic, the team was introduced to additional tools that allowed them to work remotely. This also allowed the team to dedicate more time at night to the project.
“Speaking for a lot of our team members, it was easier for us to work on this project remotely at night,” Gross said. “Sometimes, we would be up all night whenever we had things like Zoom available.”
Bernardo Martinez, a team member and aerospace engineering Ph.D. student, said the team faced several challenges throughout the competition, but working alongside his team to overcome each challenge helped him learn a lot.
“We were able to, from scratch, make the robot do automatized tasks and we had some good discussions with everyone in the robotics team. There were always good ideas being suggested,” Martinez said. “I would say we have good chances to do well and bring some acknowledgement to our group nationally, and hopefully bring a prize to WVU as well.”
The final phase of the competition begins on Jan. 25, and full details are set to be released around that time. Gross said the final round is currently set to run through July.