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NASA Requires Source Code from Robot Challenge Entrants
The new Sample Return Robot Challenge draft rules require full disclosure of robot code, schematics, and electrical components.
By Ellen Cotton, Editor, RoboNexus - Filed Jun 09, 2011

Future space missions designed to take samples could benefit from technology developed via the NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge. This picture is an artist's concept portraying NASA's Mars Science Laboratory, a future mobile robot for investigating Mars' past or present ability to sustain microbial life. The arm extending from the front of the rover is designed both to position some of the rover's instruments onto selected rocks or soil targets and also to collect samples for analysis by other instruments. Near the base of the arm is a sample preparation and handling system designed to grind samples, such as rock cores or small pebbles, and distribute the material to analytical instruments. The mast, rising to about 2.1 meters (6.9 feet) above ground level, supports two remote-sensing instruments: the Mast Camera for stereo color viewing of surrounding terrain and material collected by the arm, and the ChemCam for analyzing the types of atoms in material that laser pulses have vaporized from rocks or soil targets up to about 9 meters (30 feet) away. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

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Draft rules for the new NASA Centennial Challenge—created to develop robots, processes, and technologies that could be implemented in a lunar or Martian environment—were posted on the website of Worcester, Mass.-based Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), the allied organization, on May 27. The rules will be open for comment until June 17, with final rules posted “on or around” June 28.

The draft rules have a stipulation that may give teams entering the competition cause for concern. That is, in the deadlines and documentation section, the draft rules state, “Each team must provide a full printout of their robot code along with a schematic of all electrical components for each robot.”

Past governmental challenges, such as the autonomous robot DARPA Grand Challenges, did not require this type of disclosure, and intellectual property used in the challenge went on to become the core of future commercial businesses.

“Similar to our Green Flight Aviation Challenge, we are asking for this information so that the judges will understand what technologies they are witnessing when watching the demonstrations and to assure that the competition can be operated in a safe manner,” says Dr. Larry P Cooper, program executive for Centennial Challenges at NASA. “The team agreements, which cover many different issues such as rights to use of imagery, etc., would include a non-disclosure clause for WPI and NASA..”

According to Cooper, the intellectual property remains with the organization that provided it in the competition. “One provision that we do have is that the winning team who receives the prize money would agree to negotiate in good faith with NASA the grant of a nonexclusive, nontransferable, irrevocable, license to practice or have practiced the intellectual property throughout the world, at reasonable compensation, if NASA chooses to pursue such a license. The team retains all rights to sell the resultant or derived product, service, or technology used to win the Challenge to whomever they wish, provided they abide by all local, state, and federal laws and regulations regarding the sale and export of technology,” he says.

Cooper further notes that WPI is posting the draft rules so that WPI and the agency will be able to get as much feedback as possible before the rules are finalized.

The Centennial Challenge competition has a total prize purse of $1.5 million. Each team completing the first level gets an even share of $50,000, up to $5,000. If any of the prize money remains after the level-one competition, it is split between the three top scorers in the second level. A total of 25 points can be earned in the competition, with prize money awarded for attaining 15 or more points.

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