Night Rover

You think you've got challenges?

Unmanned aircraft, autonomous robots and extra-long battery power for moon expeditions are all targets of NASA’s current Centennial Challenges. 

The Centennial Challenges tap small businesses, academia and citizen inventors to advance technology for NASA and the nation. The program began in 2005, and more than 20 competitions have been held in eight areas of technology covering robotics, lunar landing and excavation, power beaming and green aviation

NASA’s 2014 Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Operations Challenge is aimed at developing a UAV able to operate safely in the national airspace along with piloted aircraft. The winning  UAV will need to make it through an airspace obstacle course. 

Phase 1 of the challenge, with a $500,000 prize, is scheduled to be held April 28 - May 7, 2014. Phase 2, with an estimated $1 million prize, will be held approximately a year later. The first phase “focuses on important aspects of safe ground and airspace operations, robustness to system failures,” noted NASA on its website, particularly on sensing and avoiding other air traffic. Competitors will also need to demonstrate basic airmanship and air vehicle capabilities of their entries.

NASA and Development Projects Inc. of Dayton, Ohio, are jointly hosting the challenge, which will be held at The Ohio/Indiana UAS Center & Test Complex Camp at the Atterbury Joint Maneuver Training Center.

The challenge hopes to incorporate technologies from other areas and disciplines for solutions in the civil aviation arena, said Thomas Irvine, NASA’s deputy associate administrator for aeronautics research in an announcement of the challenge

Unmanned aircraft is part of NASA’s goals for the Next Generation Air Transportation System, The NextGen project, addresses where, when, how and to what extent automation can be applied to moving aircraft safely and efficiently through the National Airspace System.

Registration for Phase 1 of the challenge is open through March 31. 

In addition to the UAS challenge, NASA has reopened the Sample Return Robot (SRR) challenge,  in which teams will vie for a $1.5 million prize to demonstrate a robot that can locate and retrieve geologic samples from wide and varied terrains without human controls. The challenge will be held in June at the Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Mass.

Last June NASA awarded $5,000 to a team for successfully completing Level 1 of the 2013 SRR challenge. No teams made it to the second level of the competition last year. The $1.5 million prize will only be awarded once all specifications are met.

Trials on the third challenge, the Night Rover Challenge, will begin Jan. 24. 

The Night Rover Challenge is aimed at developing a device capable of storing the two weeks’ worth of energy that would be required for a rover to operate in the lunar darkness. Unlike Earth’s 24-hour day, the lunar cycle is two weeks of light followed by two weeks of darkness.

“It can be an advanced battery, a fuel cell system, or even a flywheel of some sort as long as it meets the requirements,” noted Bob Silberg of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Results from the challenge will be announced the following spring, although Sam Ortega, program manager of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, doesn’t expect announcing a winner then. “We don’t ever expect anybody to win a competition the very first time we offer it. We set the bar pretty high and it usually takes two to three years or more to complete a competition.”

To win a challenge, NASA said, teams must fully complete/meet the standards and goals set forth for each challenge. So if no team successfully meets the criteria, there is no winner, and the competition may be run again with the prize money still available. 

Last December, NASA announced it is seeking new Challenge competition ideas. The contest should “address major issues leading to new aerospace capabilities. Technology advancement is a key requirement; technology advancements in any area that improves NASA’s ability to perform future missions will be an important consideration.”

Prize purses are up to $10 million, and solution challenges should be achievable within a 10-year time frame. NASA is particularly interested in solutions that would identify and address asteroid threats to humans. The agency issued a grand challenge on detecting and resolving asteroid threats last June

NASA is only considering challenge concept submissions from institutions with the ability and interest in being an allied, or partner, organization. Submissions are due by Dec. 1, 2014. 

The final topics are selected based on collective agency feedback and an assessment of criteria including: 

  • Relevance to NASA, national and global needs. 
  • Potential to stimulate interest and participation among competitors.
  • Practicality based on funding available and past experience with other competitions.
  • Compelling nature in terms of risks, benefits and number of potential participants. 
  • Advocacy within NASA.


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