First-time competitor West Virginia University received $5,000 from NASA for being the only team to successfully complete level one on this year’s Sample Return Robot Challenge. The challenge is held as part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges and earned the Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources team the right to return in 2015 for a chance at the $1.5 million level two prize.

This is WVU’s third-straight win in a NASA-sponsored robotic competition this summer. In May, the Mountaineers took first-place honors in the mining and outreach competitions in NASA’s 2014 Robotic Mining Competition. Two weeks later, they ruled the Rock Yard at Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, scoring a record-high 99 points in winning NASA’s Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts-Academic Linkages or Robo-Ops Competition.

“It’s exciting to see such innovative approaches to solving tough technical questions,” said NASA Chief Technologist David Miller. “These challenges are intentionally difficult so that we can make leaps, not steps, in progressing the technology. We are proud that the Mountaineers have risen to the occasion.”

Miller presented the team from WVU with a check for $5,000, which they plan to use as seed funds in the development of a scholarship that promotes robotics education and research at the University.

The goal of the event, which was held at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, is to design and develop robots capable of exploring landscapes in space without human control. In level one, robots have 30 minutes to locate and retrieve a sample that was previously identified in the robot’s onboard computer. In level two, robots have two hours to retrieve objects across various levels of difficulty. Seventeen teams traveled to the competition, with 14 cleared to compete. Other universities fielding teams included University of Waterloo (Canada), University of California-Santa Cruz, Oregon State University and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

“We only had six months to work on the project from the time we started, so we were at a severe disadvantage compared to the veteran teams who had been working for three years,” said Morgantown native Nick Ohi, who led the team’s software architecture development and mission computer programming and testing. “We knew that we had a very talented team, however, so we were confident that we could complete successfully.”

Day one of the competition found WVU with the unenviable position of starting last.

“It’s not a very good position, because the lighting conditions in the afternoon are not good for computer vision,” said Team Leader Yu Gu, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. “Actually, it started to rain just before we started.”

After being powered-up, the robot began its task of finding a sample.

“After a few scans, the rover found the sample, approached it and picked it up. Everything worked as planned,” said Gu. “The next step in the procedure is for the rover to back off and confirm the sample was actually taken. However, we were all shocked to see the rover slowly drop the sample. The robot attempted to grab the sample six more times, but we run out of the time.”

Upon further inspection, the team found that a software node in the vision computer had crashed. When it restarted, it sent an erroneous message to the mission computer, leading the robot to think the sample was not collected thus causing it to open the grabber to perform the next collection maneuver.

On Thursday, a team from California, which had qualified in 2013, was unsuccessful at completing the level two challenge, giving this year’s competitors a chance to re-run level one on Saturday.

After making some minor adjustments on Thursday and Friday, the WVU team was anxious as the robot made its way to the starting platform after grabbing the sample.

“At the bottom of the hill, the robot stopped and did not move again for more than three minutes. It was the longest three minutes of my life,” Gu said. “I thought the computer crashed. By some miracle, the rover started moving again and delivered the sample to the starting platform with eight minutes to spare.”

“Our design was definitively ambitious. Not only did we develop the software to operate our fully autonomous robot, but we also designed our own platform with a complete rocker-bogie suspension and our own printed circuit boards to handle the task of power distribution, sensor fusion and communication,” said Electrical Team Lead Scott Harper, from Spencer.

“To be able to quickly produce from concept, to design, to final product required an enormous effort on everyone’s part. In the final weeks leading up to the competition, Dr. Gu would have to force us to go home and rest or else we would likely go without sleep.”

The rocker-bogie suspension, which can be found on the Curiosity Mars rover, is designed to keep all six wheels on a surface no matter the terrain and uses only linkages, no springs.

“Our team did an outstanding job building and designing the robot to perform the tasks required to be successful,” said Clarksburg native Jared Strader. “I was surprised to see that there were not more teams to complete level one at this year’s competition. The majority of teams struggled with similar simple problems, which was interesting to see.” Strader served as the team’s lead programmer and was responsible for computer vision and software integration and testing.

Joining Ohi, Harper and Strader on the team are Lucas Behrens of Romney; Alexander Hypes of Lewisburg; Tim Godisart from Waynesburg, Pennsylvania; Ryan Watson of Burgettstown, Pennsylvania; Kyle Lassak of Loretto, Pennsylvania; and Tanmay Mandal of West Bengal, India. Joining Gu in a leadership role were Marvin Cheng, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, and Powsiri Klinkhachorn, professor of computer science and electrical engineering.

NASA Centennial Challenges were initiated in 2005 to engage the public in the process of advanced technology development. The program offers incentive prizes to generate revolutionary solutions to problems of interest to NASA and the nation. Competitors are not supported by government funding and awards are only made to successful teams when the challenges are met. In addition to the $5,000 prize from NASA, the WVU team earned a $1,000 technology achievement award from WPI.

The team was sponsored by the Statler College, the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, the Lane Department of Computer Science and Electrical Engineering, NASA West Virginia Space Grant Consortium and the West Virginia High Tech Consortium Foundation.