A team of Rensselaer students and their autonomous robot will compete this June in the 2015 NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge. Held at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the challenge requires robots to navigate over unknown terrain and around obstacles to locate and retrieve geological samples.
The Rensselaer entry is a sophisticated robot, complete with arms, a complex manipulation and grasping system, a long-range laser sensor to help with navigation, and a turntable with separate containers for each sample the robot collects.
A primary goal of the NASA challenge is to prepare robots for space exploration. Therefore, robot designs may not include processes or technology that can work on Earth but not in lunar or Martian environments. Ultrasonic sensors and GPS technology, for example, are prohibited.
The robot challenge includes two levels and is so difficult that, since its inception in 2012, only two teams have advanced beyond level 1. None has completed level 2.
In level 1, the robot has 30 minutes to retrieve and return a previously identified geological sample. In level 2, robots must collect and return multiple samples, each of which is assigned a point value based on the difficulty of retrieval.
“We’re being asked to solve problems that haven’t been solved before,” said Brayden Hollis, leader of the Rensselaer team, RPI Rock Raiders. “Navigating an outdoor environment—with changing lighting, shadows, and colors—is easy for a person, but in robotics it’s something that no one else has done.”
Hollis, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in computer science, learned about the robot challenge last year while researching internship opportunities at NASA. He sought and received permission from his adviser, Computer Science Professor Jeff Trinkle, to form a team and enter the competition. Trinkle is on leave from Rensselaer while serving as a program director for the Division of Information and Intelligent Systems of the National Science Foundation, responsible for the National Robotics Initiative. He and Glenn Saunders, senior research engineer in the Rensselaer Center for Automation Technologies and Systems (CATS), are advisers for the RPI Rock Raiders.
“This competition is a great opportunity for students to put academics into practice and learn the importance of teamwork,” Trinkle said.
We’re being asked to solve problems that haven’t been solved before. Navigating an outdoor environment—with changing lighting, shadows, and colors—is easy for a person, but in robotics it’s something that no one else has done.”—Brayden Hollis, leader of the RPI Rock Raiders
Last year, the team’s relatively late entry placed the RPI Rock Raiders at a disadvantage. The 2014 team consisted of six members, and most were computer science majors. With limited time, they opted for a simple design: a box-like robot that used a scoop to pick up the geological samples.
For this year’s contest, however, the Rock Raiders hit the ground running. The original team members stayed on and began recruiting fellow students as soon as they returned to campus in the fall. The result is an 18-member team of graduate and undergraduate students with majors including computer science, computer and systems engineering, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.
“The team is equally focused on hardware and software, electrical and mechanical,” Saunders said. “This is a truly multidisciplinary challenge, being tackled by a truly multidisciplinary team.”
• Sean Bayman, electrical engineering
• Landon Bogumil, mechanical engineering
• Micah Corah, computer science
• Matt Corsaro, electrical engineering
• Aquiel Godeau, electrical engineering
• Christopher Ho, mechanical engineering
• Dustin Hoffman, mechanical engineering
• Brayden Holli, computer science
• Samantha Lee, computer science
• Sathya Levy, industrial and management engineering
• Yiyang Li, electrical engineering
• Salles Magalhaes, computer science
• Alexander Malin, materials engineering
• Bryant Pong, computer science
• Daryian Rhysing, computer and systems engineering
• Ryan Tozier, mechanical engineering
• Freddy Wang, mechanical engineering
• Zhaoyi Zhang, electrical engineering
“We put together a team of engineers and computer scientists who understand not just their part of the project but also how it interfaces with everything else,” Bayman said. “In the real world, that’s how it works. If you want to accomplish something significant, you need a team.”
The project is funded with $14,700 in contributions, including $7,000 from the Grainger Foundation in response to a grant proposal submitted by team members. Other supporters include CATS, the School of Science, the School of Engineering, and the Upstate New York Laboratory Robotics Interest Group. Dell donated two laptops.
Rensselaer students also are involved in the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge, an international competition that puts humanoid robots to the test responding to natural disaster scenarios. Team TROOPER, a partnership of Rensselaer, Lockheed Martin, and the University of Pennsylvania, has advanced to the contest finals, which will be held in Pomona, California, in June.
More information: NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge.