WEST VIRGINIA (LOOTPRESS/WVU) – The robotics team at West Virginia University has set its sights on the moon, launching off a long history of success in robotics competitions and NASA Centennial Challenges.
After a year of competition in the Space Robotics Challenge Phase 2, the team from the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources has moved on to the final round, making it eligible to compete for the $185,000 grand prize.
The Space Robotics Challenge Phase 2, a two-year NASA Centennial Challenge, requires competing teams to solve problems posed by NASA. Out of approximately 123 teams that entered the competition, WVU is among the top 25 teams to qualify for the final round and receive $15,000 in prize money.
Led by Jason Gross, associate professor and associate chair for research in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the team walked away from the second phase scoring an impressive 35 points, 15 points above the 20 point threshold that was the baseline for qualifying.
The challenge focused on autonomous robots operating on the surface of the moon and collecting useful resources. The robot was required to be completely autonomous — unlike current Mars or other lunar rovers that are primarily remotely operated— adding an extra layer of difficulty. Gross explained that to be able to build a lunar outpost, the level of autonomy must be increased.
“There are a lot of unsolved problems for how robots and humans would be able to set up an outpost on the moon,” Gross said. “How would we be able to use a lunar outpost to be able to do things like get to Mars in the future from a launch from the moon? It has the potential for a big global impact.”
The team was required to develop algorithms and implement them in response to three unique tasks — the lunar rover had to successfully search the moon for valuable resources and accurately report their locations within a map, extract resources through the cooperation of two rovers, and be able to use a rover’s sensors to localize a CubeSat and then align the rover with a processing plant.
“In the first task, we basically had to provide a map of resources that would be needed for various things on the moon,” Gross explained. “These are things like water, or hydrogen, or different chemical compounds that would be useful for building a future base station or putting rocket fuel on the moon.”
Gross said the WVU team was well suited for the competition, hitting on several strengths of the robotics team. The competition required the team to implement a robust localization for the rovers, which is well aligned with Gross’ research. In addition, expertise was needed in computer vision, motion control, planning and autonomy, which are all fundamental robotics areas at WVU.
“We entered this competition with the primary goal of using it to develop new leaders within our robotics community,” Gross said. “There is no question that some new leaders have emerged amongst the talented group of robotics graduate students that participated. I am proud to have worked with them and look forward to continue on to the final competition.”
Because the competition had been originally designed to be a completely virtual lunar environment, it was not heavily impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We spent many long nights on Zoom together and took full advantage of its screen sharing and remote operation features in order to help each other debug and test our software,” Gross said.
The full details of the final round of the competition will not be released until later this month; however, the team will have to combine all three of the tasks that they demonstrated in the first round into a single mission that uses multiple robots to find, extract and return valuable lunar resources to the base.
The team consists of aerospace engineering Ph.D. students Cagri Kilic, Bernardo Martinez Rocamora Junior, Shounak Das, Nicholas Ohi, Rogerio Lima, Matteo De Petrillo, Jared Beard and Chizhao Yang, mechanical engineering PhD students Christopher Tatsch and Jared Strader, aerospace engineering master’s student Derek Ross, as well as undergraduate mechanical and aerospace engineering student Trevor Smith. Additional students supported the team throughout the year. Associate Professor Yu Gu and Associate Professor Guilherme Pereira served as team mentors.