NIA News Release 2015-07: Teams Selected for NASA 2016 Robotics Tele-Operations Competition

NIA News Release 2015-07: Teams Selected for NASA 2016 Robotics Tele-Operations Competition

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE — October 22, 2015

Harla Sherwood
National Institute of Aerospace, Hampton, Va.

Kathy Barnstorff
Langley Research Center, Hampton, Va.

NIA Release: 2015-07

Teams Selected for NASA 2016 Robotics Tele-Operations Competition

Eight universities have advanced to the finals of “RASC-AL Robo-Ops,” a remotely or tele-operated space exploration rover engineering competition sponsored by NASA and organized by the National Institute of Aerospace (NIA).

The teams selected are California State University Long Beach; University of California, Berkeley; University of Maryland, College Park; University of Buffalo in New York; University of Oklahoma, Norman; University of Utah, Salt Lake City; University of Wyoming, Laramie; and West Virginia University, Morgantown.

The 6th Annual Revolutionary Aerospace Systems Concepts – Academic Linkage (RASC-AL) Exploration Robo-Ops is an engineering design competition sponsored by the Advanced Exploration Systems program of NASA’s Human Exploration Operations and Missions Directorate. Pat Troutman, human exploration strategic analysis lead at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, and Shelley Spears at NIA oversee the contest.

“The first Robo-Ops competition was hosted in 2011, and since then, the quality of the tele-operated rovers just gets better and better,” said Troutman. “In 2016, we’ve continued to push the envelope of their capabilities by adding to the complexity of the competition. When these eight teams show up at the 2016 Robo-Ops Competition, we fully expect to see prototypes that can provide innovative solutions to some of the challenges that future tele-operated rovers will face.”

While the competition focuses primarily on robotics it is also tied to NASA’s goal to send humans on a journey to Mars. In the design process students are encouraged to look at technologies that could help humans and robots work together better on the Red Planet.

During the contest, multi-disciplinary graduate and undergraduate teams are challenged to design and build a planetary rover and demonstrate its ability to perform a series of competitive tasks in an environment that shares characteristics with the surface of the moon and Mars. NASA uses the “Rock Yard” facility at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston to simulate the rough terrain of other worlds during space mission surface operations training.

The big challenge is that students will have to control their creations from afar. This requirement simulates astronaut-guided rover exploration over long distances. Cameras will transmit video from the rovers during the competition at the Rock Yard back to the universities’ “mission control centers” and to the general public. The teams will have to rely on these video feeds, complete with communications delays, to serve as the rover’s “eyes and ears.” Each team will try to meet specific goals while navigating obstacles under the watchful eyes of the public who will be able to view the live video.

The Rock Yard segment of the RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops contest is worth almost two-thirds of each team’s final score. Teams will also be evaluated on the results of their efforts to develop creative companion education and outreach components related to the competition. The outreach factor of the competition is designed to spark interest from students and the public in human and robotic planetary exploration.

This selection is the first major milestone in a nine-month development and testing effort for the eight teams. Throughout the 2015-2016 academic year, the teams must meet a series of development check-points to determine that they are on-target to have functioning rovers that can successfully complete all portions of the on-site competition, which will be held in May. Teams will also complete a 15-page technical paper outlining their rover design, testing, and decision-making strategy, as well as present their rover design to the judges in a poster session that mimics NASA design reviews.

By participating in this challenging hands-on competition, students receive real-world experience that parallels what NASA professionals are doing today. Robo-Ops contributes to NASA’s efforts to develop a highly skilled workforce, while also obtaining innovative ideas from some of the best student minds in the country.

“By challenging teams to demonstrate innovative concepts for tele-operated rovers as they would be used on a variety of planetary surfaces, they are helping to provide solutions and innovative approaches to some of the challenges NASA faces in our Journey to Mars,” said Troutman. “Robo-Ops teams will be testing Mars-forward capabilities to reduce mass and increase reliability in a deep space environment, demonstrating tele-operated robotic asset work on lunar and Mars surfaces, and simulating crew assisted return of samples.”

For more information about the RASC-AL Exploration Robo-Ops competition, visit:

For additional information about NASA Langley, please go to:

For more information about the National Institute of Aerospace, please visit:



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