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Teams Awarded $5,000 Prizes in Level 1 of NASA’s Sample Return Robot Challenge, and Qualify for Shot at Bigger Award in Level 2

Five teams are taking home prize money after completing Level 1 of NASA’s Sample Return Robot Challenge, part of the agency’s Centennial Challenges prize program. Worcester Polytechnic Institute hosted the event for the fifth year June 7-11 at its Worcester, Massachusetts, campus. Eighteen teams of citizen inventors, from universities to families to small businesses, competed in the challenge, which has a total prize purse of $1.5 million. Each winning team was awarded $5,000 for their success, and they have earned a shot at Level 2 of the competition, which will take place Sept. 2-5.

The winning Level 1 teams are:

  • Team Al of Toronto, Canada
  • Alabama Astrorobotics of Tuscaloosa, Alabama
  • MAXed Out of Santa Clara, California
  • Mind & Iron of Seattle, Washington
  • Sirius of South Hadley, Massachusetts
Team AL for Sample Return Robot
Erica Tiberia, the sole member of Team Al, works on her robot at the Level 1 competition of NASA’s 2016 Sample Return Robot Challenge. Her robot was one of five to qualify for the Level 2 competition in September.

The objective of the challenge is to encourage innovations in autonomous navigation and robotics technologies. Teams must design robots that can autonomously locate, collect and return samples to the starting point. For Level 1, each robot had to return two known samples within 30 minutes without human control or the aid of Earth-based technologies, such as GPS.

This stage was a precursor to the more difficult requirements they will face in Level 2, where they must locate up to 10 unknown samples that vary in size, shape and difficulty. The samples are classified as easy, intermediate and hard and are assigned corresponding point values.

These five winners will join two teams that qualified for Level 2 in prior competitions: Survey of Los Angeles, California, and the West Virginia University Mountaineers of Morgantown. All teams will have a two-hour limit at this level, and have the opportunity to win all or a share of the remaining $1.36 million.

Team Alabama Astrobotics 2 for Sample Return Robot
Team members of Alabama Astrobotics show their robot to judges at the Level 1 competition of NASA’s 2016 Sample Return Robot Challenge. The team, competing for their first year, was one of five to qualify for the Level 2 competition in September.

“The teams have impressed us this year, and these are the best Level 1 results we have seen in the history of this competition,” said Monsi Roman, program manager of Centennial Challenges. “The intensity and commitment all of these competitors showed is a reflection of the relentless innovative spirit we hope to discover and enable through public challenges.”

Roman and WPI President Laurie Leshin, who previously served as a senior leader in NASA’s science and human spaceflight programs, presented awards to the team members June 11 at TouchTomorrow, an annual science and robotics technology festival at WPI. All of the teams showcased their robots to the public at the event, which also featured NASA and WPI exhibits in science, robotics and space technology.

“WPI has a long and celebrated history with robotics, including being the first school in the nation to offer an undergraduate degree in Robotics Engineering, so hosting the Sample Return Robot Challenge and TouchTomorrow is a natural fit,” said Colleen Shaver, assistant director of the WPI Robotics Resource Center. “The application of critical thinking to open-ended problems posed through this Centennial Challenge, as well as promoting the importance of science and engineering through hands-on activities at TouchTomorrow, parallel the learning environment here at WPI.”

Centennial Challenges, managed by the agency’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, is NASA’s citizen inventor prize program that invites the nation to help advance the technologies that will enable us to go to Mars and beyond, as well as improve life on Earth.

For more information about the competition, visit: