Augusta-area team hopes robot will win NASA prize

Chris Williamson is hoping an idea conceived in the Augusta area will be worth $1.5 million to NASA.

The Graniteville resident and his SpacePRIDE team are building two autonomous rover robots that have the capability to collect samples in space.

The robots will compete against those built by 13 other teams across the U.S. for a $1.5 million prize in NASA’s second Sample Return Robot Challenge, which will be held at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Texas, in June.

“Instead of paying their engineering department a billion dollars to come up with one idea, they can offer this prize and have 20 or 30 or even 100 people come up with 100 different ideas, and they can test them all at the same time,” Williamson said. “Whoever wins gets the money, and then NASA is able to buy that technology and basically use it on future missions.”

SpacePRIDE competed in the event last year and was the only team out of 11 to clear inspections and make the competition stage, according to the NASA Web site.

The team did not receive prize money because their robot failed to pick up the sample and complete the mission.

Williamson said he and his team used the experience to build two new rovers for this year’s competition.

“We learned a big lesson last year, that we made things overly complicated and we needed to go back a little more simple,” he said. “We’ve made them more simple, more compact and hopefully more agile.”

For the past eight months, the team – leader Williamson, mathematician Amanda Walters, programmer Fred Alger and CAD engineer Chase Woodhams – has been designing and building two rovers that will navigate a large terrain and collect samples using cameras and a computer.

They have put more than $15,000 and nearly 600 hours into the project so far. Last year’s project took an investment of $30,000 and nearly 1,000 hours, he said.

Each rover has a collection bin that transports samples back to the “home base” in a sterile environment.

“The only thing is, there’s no human interaction with the rovers. It’s fully autonomous,” he said.

The rovers can’t use Earth-based navigation systems such as GPS or a compass, either, because they won’t work on the moon or Mars.

Williamson, a machinist for Kenward Industries in Beech Island, has been doing robotics for at least 10 years. He learned of the contest through research, after a couple of his friends competed in a similar contest and won a $500,000 prize.

If the team wins, Williamson plans to use his share to “pay off everything I own” and beef up his efforts to introduce more young people to the world of robotics.

“One thing we’re looking for, too, is sponsors and possible investors,” he said. He hopes to draw national attention to cutting-edge technology that is being developed in this area.

“We’re trying to put the word out there to show everybody that a small team from the middle of nowhere can actually do the same stuff these big universities and corporations are doing,” he said.

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