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College Team Wins NASA Lunar Robot Prize
Paul’s Robotics, a team led by college student, Paul Ventimiglia of Worcester Polytechnic Institute won the $500,000 first prize in the 2009 Regolith Excavation Challenge that concluded on October 18. The second place prize of $150,000 was won by Terra Engineering of Gardena, California and the $100,000 third place prize went to Team Braundo of Rancho Palos Verdes, California. Twenty teams qualified for the event that was held at the NASA Ames Research Park in Mountain View, California. The California Space Education and Workforce Institute managed the competition. The Regolith Excavation Challenge is one of six NASA Centennial Challenges. The half-million dollar prize award was the largest to date in the program and the number of competing teams was also a record.

This was the third year for the Regolith Excavation Challenge in which teams must design, build and operate a mobile robot that can dig up and deposit at least 150 kilograms of material from a simulated lunar surface and deposit it in a collection bin. This demonstrates a key task in lunar construction and in harvesting resources on the moon. Regolith is the powdered rock material found on the surface of the moon and its dusty and abrasive properties make the operation of machinery and other devices especially difficult. The competition was conducted in the Lunar Regolith Testbed, a “sandbox” that contains eight tons of simulated regolith material. Teams had only 30 minutes to complete the task and had to control their robots from a remote station with no direct view. A two-second time delay was added to the communications link to simulate the time lag that would exist in actual operations at the distance of the moon.

After two previous years in which there were no winners, the drama and success stories that unfolded through the two-day contest were especially satisfying. Braundo, the very first team in the box, set the bar quite high by excavating 264 kilograms, well over the 150-kilogram minimum requirement. That record stood until the second day when Paul’s Robotics literally left the competition in the lunar dust by collecting an astounding mass of 500 kilograms. Much later, Terra Engineering, the second last team to compete, excavated 271 kilograms to move into second place. There were other teams that moved less regolith but impressed the judges in any case including a young team from Palm Bay, Florida who built a fully autonomous robot.

Altogether six teams excavated significant amounts of regolith and there were other rewards beyond the prize money. The field included start-up entrepreneurs, college students, and older inventors and mentors from at least thirteen different states. According NASA Centennial Challenges program manager, Andrew Petro, “The magnitude of the effort and the enthusiasm and creativity of the teams was inspiring. NASA’s investment is relatively small and the return is enormous. In addition to specific innovations that might be considered in future designs, the NASA engineers present were able to observe and evaluate a collection of working prototypes that that would normally cost millions of dollars to create. Furthermore, there is tremendous value in giving a new generation of innovators the opportunity to test their ideas in real-world conditions, or in this case, out-of-this-world conditions. The experience they gain through these projects will aid them in their future work and benefit our nation’s economy for years to come.”

Now that the $750,000 prize money has been awarded, this three-year challenge is concluded. However if future prize funding is available, every effort will be made to build on the success of this program with new prize competitions in the field of robots for space exploration and settlement.

Another lasting legacy of this competition is the Lunar Regolith Testbed at the NASA Ames Research Park, which through a partnership between the NASA Lunar Science Institute and the California Space Authority, will be available year-round for researchers to test hardware designs intended for the lunar surface.

The NASA Centennial Challenges program encourages citizen participation in aerospace technology development through prize competitions in areas of interest and value to NASA and the nation. Current Challenges include: Lunar Lander, Power Beaming, Astronaut Glove, Strong Tether and Green Flight.

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For more information on the 2009 Regolith Excavation Challenge, go to: http://regolith.csewi.org/