The International Conference on Robotics and Automation features friendly competitions where teams from around the world participate in exciting challenges to encourage innovation and creativity, all while showcasing their research. In 2008 and 2010, ModLab hosted planetary contingency competitions where teams developed solutions to emergency problems at a Mars base station.
These events simulated an unexpected problem occurring at a planetary habitat, where a robotic solution must be quickly developed and deployed, using only existing resources. The intent of this event was to develop versatile robotic systems and software that can be adapted quickly to address unexpected events. Since humans were present, natural solutions to realistic, unexpected events exploited human creativity and human-robot interaction.
The competition drove not only the development of versatile robotic hardware and on-board software, but also the design and development of programming and assembly tools capable of rapidly implementing a wide variety of capabilities. Since tele-operation was not precluded for this event, the development of effective user interfaces was another outcome.
The environments for these events consisted of two areas: the planetary surface and the habitat. The planetary surface had the same specifications as for the Sandbox event. The habitat represented the human-occupied structure from which the robots will be “launched” onto the planetary surface. In all scenarios, the human participants could not exit the habitat. Robots were placed in an airlock chamber and driven out onto the planetary surface. If a robot needed to return to the habitat, it must do so through the airlock chamber. The airlock had a pair of sealing doors, making autonomy or wireless tele-operation the only options for robot control. The airlock was 1.5m long, 1m wide, and 1m tall, with 1m by 1m doors at each end of the long dimension.
Teams were allowed to use only what they can carry within a container with outside dimensions summing to less than 150cm, and weighing 25kg or less. For example, a container 70cm long, 50cm wide, and 30cm tall has a total dimension of 70+50+30 = 150cm, and would be within the size limits. These limitations were designed to represent the very real space and weight restrictions enforced on space missions, and to make the event more challenging. For convenience, we also allowed access to six standard domestic AC power outlets (United States standard NEMA 5-15, 110v, 15A, 60Hz).
The actual unexpected problems to be solved were announced on the day of the competition. The problems were constrained to have a likely robotic solution that fit the spirit of the competition. For example, robots were not required to travel 100km to the site of the problem, or to construct a 10-person emergency habitat from freshly-mined regolith. The scope of the tasks varied from short 1-hour tasks, to tasks taking from 4-6 hours. Specific tasks were announced to all teams simultaneously, and they worked on their solutions independently.