NASA Awards $1.2 Million to BIG Idea Challenge Finalists

The student-led teams are working to create robotic systems for exploring the moon and potentially Mars.

NASA hopes the student team finalists in its BIG Idea Challenge will create innovative rovers able to explore areas of the moon that have been difficult to reach. (Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.)

NASA hopes the student team finalists in its BIG Idea Challenge will create innovative rovers able to explore areas of the moon that have been difficult to reach. (Image courtesy of NASA/GSFC/Arizona State University.)

NASA is looking to future engineers to make breakthroughs in robotic systems for exploring the moon and beyond. Teams from seven universities were chosen as finalists in the 2022 Breakthrough, Innovative and Game-changing (BIG) Idea Challenge, garnering a combined nearly $1.2 million in grants to continue the development of their projects over the next 10 months. This year’s competition, the seventh to be held, challenged engineering students to develop robotic systems for space exploration that are cost-effective and provide versatile movement options beyond traditional wheeled rovers.

“To achieve a long-term lunar presence, we need to fully understand the conditions and available resources on the Moon,” said Niki Werkheiser, director of technology maturation within NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at the agency’s headquarters in Washington. “These student-designed alternative concepts offer an exciting opportunity to more deeply explore the moon’s hard-to-reach areas—like caves and pits—so we can safely live on and explore Earth’s satellite.”

The BIG Idea Challenge aligns with NASA’s Artemis program, which aims to explore the lunar surface with innovative technologies that may lend themselves to additional Mars exploration. A key component of that is the development of robotics and rovers that can handle extreme and varied terrain from rocky crags to extremely steep slopes and porous regolith.

This year’s BIG Idea Challenge competitors are proving the future of engineering is bright. The team from Caltech, which had more than 30 undergraduate students from the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, developed the Lunar Architecture for Tree Traversal In-service-of Cable Exploration (LATTICE), a self-deploying, modular system for transporting items to and from lunar craters. It features cables and stakes, similar to equipment used in the logging industry, to transport the hardware and material.

“We are trying to set up a permanent system of cables that any sort of tools or robot can leverage,” said Luis Pabon, Caltech undergraduate student. “Putting a ski lift on the moon, essentially.”

An illustration of LATTICE's three interlocking systems. (Image courtesy of Caltech.)

An illustration of LATTICE’s three interlocking systems. (Image courtesy of Caltech.)

One challenge for the interconnected LATTICE systems is anchoring it down in the moon’s regolith.

“The regolith on the moon is not well understood, so we are trying to develop our prototype to see how much force the stakes can hold and how to make changes in the anchoring system to hold up on the moon,” said Calle Junker, third-year Caltech undergraduate student.

Along with designing and developing their system, the team looks forward to completing a tech demonstration in the desert by November with a small-scale prototype. As the team continues its efforts, the teamwork and camaraderie being built along the way are immeasurable.

“It’s been amazing to be a part of a community of people who are trying to make something cool and novel,” said Polina Verkhovodova, Caltech undergraduate student. “The fact that the engineers at JPL are giving us advice and treating students as engineers on the same level is invaluable.”

The University of Connecticut team was another finalist, thanks to its Morphing Tank-to-Leg Modality for Exploratory Lunar Vehicles. The BIG Idea Challenge provided an opportunity for students inside and outside of the engineering and computer science fields at UConn to hone their technology skills.

“I’m basically the prime example of coming from a social science background onto a NASA team and really learning how to apply my expertise and my research and learning new skills,” said Sabrina Uva, UConn human development and family sciences major and a Stamford Startup Studio member. “I never imagined myself in this position.”

The UConn team included 15 undergraduate students and continues to grow. After an unlucky start trying to develop a soft-body robotic concept, the team regrouped and changed gears to create a morphing modality design. This robust, quadruped hybrid would be able to handle extreme conditions while being able to walk or tread with minimal mechanical complexity.

“It’s going to operate like a tank, and it’s going to operate like legs,” said Theresa Nosel, UConn chemical engineering and material sciences and engineering major. “We’re developing this for extreme lunar terrain, but you’re not always going to have extreme terrain. Sometimes, you’re just going to be going across a flat surface. In those instances, you don’t really need some crazy, many-degrees-of-freedom contraption.”

While the design may seem simple enough, the process has been anything but simple for the team.

“Conceptually, it’s easy to understand. The modality isn’t hard to see, but designing it is hard,” said Hritish Bhargava, UConn engineering physics major and Stamford Startup Studio member. “We had a lot of discussion about suspension, and there’s not enough space in there, so you have to figure out some new way to put suspension in there.”

The 13-member Northeastern University team took a more slithery approach with its Crater Observing Bio-inspired Rolling Articulator (COBRA). Like a lunar snake, this robot was designed to snake across loose soil. While others have made tumbling or snake robots before, COBRA is different thanks to its ouroboros inspiration. It has the ability to connect the tail and head to form a wheel for tumbling down slopes. This design lets lunar gravity do the work. After it is on level ground, it simply unwinds and continues exploration.

The Northern University team was inspired by the ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a snake swallowing its own tail, while designing its project for the competition. (Image courtesy of Northern University.)

The Northern University team was inspired by the ouroboros, an ancient symbol of a snake swallowing its own tail, while designing its project for the competition. (Image courtesy of Northern University.)

The team worked together to solve one big challenge of the design: the robot not falling over if it hits small debris. Working together, they came up with a technique that changes the robot’s center of mass in real-time, preventing it from tipping over.

Although still in the design phase, the Northeastern University team believes that its design will be able to handle slopes with more than 30 degrees of steepness. This would make it an ideal potential solution for some of the bigger lunar craters.

“We want to explore the Shackleton crater, which is massive—20 kilometers in diameter—because it might contain water,” said Matt Schroeter, Northeastern University undergraduate bioengineering student. “But if you want to send a robot into that crater, it needs to be really energy efficient because there’s no sunlight, no potential for solar energy.”

The other four BIG Idea Challenge finalists are:

  • Arizona State University: Crater Hydrogen And Regolith Laboratory for Observation on Technical Terrain Environments (CHARLOTTE), a six-legged rover with a rappel system for carrying payloads in terrain with slopes from 30- to 75-degree inclines while capturing high-resolution images and detecting ice or water.
  • Florida State University (FAMU-FSU College of Engineering): Extreme Terrain Quadruped (ET-Quad), a quadrupedal robot with multi-functional legs capable of climbing rocky surfaces, traversing rough terrain, and wading or swimming through soft-packed regolith.
  • The University of Maryland: Terrapin Rover Allows Versatile Exploration of the Lunar Surface (TRAVELS), a quadrimodal system that can leap, rappel, roll and walk using a wheel-on-leg system for environmental adaptability.
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology with Boston Dynamics, MassRobotics and Robots5: Walking Oligomeric Robotic Mobility System (WORMS), a modular robot mobility system for use with walking robots that features configurable, articulating “worms” that mimic arms, backbones and legs.