NASA robonaut (R2) robot for International Space Station (ISS)

NASA and TopCoder have teamed up to create the Robonaut Challenge. The competition, which runs until 9:00 am EDT on April 22, challenges programmers to train NASA’s Robonaut android to interact with input devices used by astronauts aboard the International Space Station.

To test the code that’s submitted, NASA has created taskboards with LEDs that turn on when a switch is flipped or buttons are pushed. The first challenge is to teach Robonaut to locate the buttons and switches and recognize their positions. Algorithms must work on different lighting conditions using Robonaut imagery on Earth, on the International Space Station, and in a simulator. Algorithms will be judged on speed, accuracy, and false detection rate. All code must be written in C++.

A follow-on contest, the Robonaut Controller Challenge, will ask competitors to write control code for the Robonaut’s arm, based on the algorithms from the first challenge.


NASA’s Centennial Challenges prize program has been hampered by lack of support from Congress and inconsistent support from NASA management. The Nanosatellite Launch Challenge was canceled before it even officially started, and there don’t seem to be many new Challenges in the pipeline. NASA is turning more toward small prizes, as in the Robonaut Challenge, and non-prize events such as the International Space Apps Challenge, a two-day hackathon scheduled for April 21-23.

Events such as the Robonaut Challenge and International Space Apps Challenge are a valuable way to engage the community in space science and technology, but they are no substitute for a well-funded, properly managed prize program like Centennial Challenges. Substantial cash prizes could help drive technology development in important areas such as low-cost spacesuit development. There is still no follow-on to the Ansari X-Prize for cheap access to space, after more than 8 years. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation tried to take up the slack a couple years ago, requesting $5 million in funding for a low-cost launch prize. Congress, unfortunately, showed no interest in the request. There still seems to be a strong feeling that space research is NASA’s job and other agencies should not be involved. The “new space” Space Frontier Foundation refused to even mention the FAA prize request, let alone support it. (Not surprising, perhaps, since the SFF is heavily dependent on NASA for funding.)

Written by Astro1 on April 9th, 2013 , Robotics

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