History of the Robotics Challenge


 Thirty years ago the two Viking Landers touched down on Mars. Their cameras were returning to Earth images that have inspired a generation of young people. These cameras were developed in Colorado and tested at the Great Sand Dunes Monument near Alamosa:

"With the Red Rock tests completed sooner than we had anticipated, the Martin Marietta engineer in charge suggested that maybe we could venture farther afield. I was dumbfounded. Although this was precisely what we had been requesting, we had always been rebuffed with a stern lecture regarding the precious character of the cameras, and the impossibility of operating them without racks of nonportable support equipment. More than once we had peevishly asked how it could be that we were building a camera that could sustain the shock of a landing on Mars, but could not survive a short excursion on Earth. The offer was quickly accepted. We loaded all the camera equipment and support gear in a rental truck-unaccountably, Martin Marietta seemed to have no vehicles available other than rockets-and started off for Great Sand Dunes National Monument.To this day I have not figured out how we managed to drive blithely away with thousands of dollars worth of irreplaceable equipment. In a project where even the most trivial events were anticipated by extensive paperwork, the rules seemed to have been suspended temporarily. Several engineers accompanied the camera in the truck. The remainder of the group traveled in private cars, all of us arranging to meet the following day at Great Sand Dunes.” (From http://history.nasa.gov/SP-425/ch8.htm. Visit this site for some interesting images of the Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.)

The association of Mars with the Great Sand Dunes continues. As recently as Fall 2006, scientists were studying the movement of the dunes in an attempt to understand atmospheric conditions of that distant planet. We wish to build on the “Mars Tradition”, believing that the results of our efforts will not only improve our understanding of autonomous robots but will encourage others to study key science and technology disciplines needed by our country. We want our event to encourage not only the students in Colorado but those across the nation.

The Colorado Robot Challenge will be staged on terrain similar to the first images returned by the Viking Landers. It will not be “friendly” terrain. The “level course”, one of several courses for this event, will be slewed with rocks and sand of different degrees of consolation. The robots will need to pick a path though this maze. It may well be that no robot will successful complete the courses. Hence, the Robot Challenge is a learning experience. There will not be a first place. There are no awards other than the satisfaction of tackling a difficult, unsolved problem. Our goal is for the various teams to develop a robot which is capable of moving over difficult terrain. We will share what we learn – both successes and failures.

Our open cooperation is essential to the development of better robots. Our designs may never make it into space. Yet, on Earth there are numerous situations where our designs will succeed. Robots are needed to clear mine fields in developing countries. Robots are needed to search for survivors in buildings devastated by natural disasters such as earthquakes or hurricanes. Robots can assist in mine rescues. Autonomous robots are needed in situations where the environment is too dangerous for people. Our Mars simulation may lead to new ideas that can address that need. The Colorado Robot Challenge will be an event where students can learn and gain valuable experience in merging sciences and technologies. And it will be fun!