Competition winner surprises NASA robotics experts

NASA knew its latest robotics competition wouldn’t be easy.

“When we started, our subject matter experts believed that nobody was going to be able to achieve these,” Monsi Roman, the program manager for NASA’s Centennial Challenges program, told GCN.

Yet Coordinated Robotics from California was led to first place by its sole member, Kevin Knoedler, who was able to complete all of the 18 tasks.

The competition, called the Space Robotics Challenge, was meant to improve autonomy for and manipulation of the R5 Valkyrie robot, which is currently in one NASA facility and three research universities.

“R5 is a child, a very early child,” Roman said.

But Kimberly Hambuchen, the human robotic system deputy manager at Johnson Space Center, said that humanoid-style robots like the R5 will play an important role in the future of space travel.

NASA doesn't have a complete Mars mission worked out yet, but there are multiple concepts floating around. Some involve humanoid robots acting as caretakers, both while humans are present and while they’re not.

“Robots that can do that," Hambuchen said. But it can take a long time for radio signals to travel from Earth to Mars, she noted, so "where we may have a 45-minute round trip-time delay [on communications], we need those robots to have more advanced autonomy than we have today.”

R5 already has made improvements since its 2013 debut. Its no longer needs to have its walking path fully programed, for example, but instead it can be given an end point and walk there on its own. But in the challenge won by Knoedler, participating teams were asked to complete a number of much harder tasks: Walking up stairs, opening the door to a habitat, finding a tool to locate an air leak, using a different tool to fix the air leak and eventually finding the winner’s circle.

“Those of us who were working on developing the tasks were skeptical that we’d see many teams actually get through the entire challenge without falling down” or pausing for human assistance, Hambuchen said.

The tasks were completed in a simulation that was stood up using an open source software tool known as Gazebo. Competitors were given time to practice in this environment and learn how to manipulate the robot, but they didn’t know the exact location or size of anything they would be asked to interact with in the final simulation. All of the tasks became progressively harder throughout the competition.

And while NASA officials were pleasantly surprised that a team completed all of the tasks in the simulation, it doesn’t mean those successes will translate perfectly to the real hardware.

“It is a guarantee that what you’re telling it isn’t that left is right and up is down,” Hambuchen said of Knoedler's winning effort. “But it’s not a guarantee that what you did on the simulation will work on the robot. Robots exist in the real world.”

The second place prize went to Walk Softly from Erie, Pa. Third place went to Team Olympus Mons from Barcelona, Spain, and fourth place went to Zarj from St. Paul, Minn.

NASA worked with Space Center Houston and NineSigma on the competition. More than 400 teams originally entered, but only 20 competed in the final last week.

Going forward, NASA will evaluate the technological advancements to see how they fit into the agency's future plans. None of the teams are guaranteed a government contract, but NASA will work with all of them to see what can be learned.

The challenge focused on humanoid robots, Hambuchen said, because the eventual goal is to have the robots operating in environments designed for humans.

“If we build environments for people to move about, to interact with, then a humanoid should be able to do all of the same physical activities the human does in that environment,” she said. “Where if you build a four-wheeled rover with an arm on it, that rover can’t necessarily get to all of the things a human can get to.”

When these fully autonomous humanoid robots will be a mission-ready reality, however, is up for debate, she said: “You’ll get a different answer from every single person you interview in robotics.”

About the Author

Matt Leonard is a former reporter for GCN.

Stay Connected

Sign up for our newsletter.

I agree to this site's Privacy Policy.