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Astrobee [Image courtesy of Freelancer.com]

NASA is a big fan of crowdsourcing and contests, whether it’s a global headlining competition like the 3D Printed Habitat Challenge or something smaller to stimulate the creativity of students. To launch these competitions, NASA often teams up with other organizations such as Freelancer.com, with which it has put on dozens of challenges since 2015, including one involving 3D printing and recycling in space. Now NASA and Freelancer.com are working together again for an ongoing challenge series that involves a flying robot.

Astrobee is a robotic assistant being designed by NASA for the astronauts on the International Space Station. It will fly around inside the ISS, perch on a wall-mounted handhold, and orient a camera as directed. NASA has already designed the free-flying part of the robot, and is now running a multi-challenge series to encourage participants to develop parts of the robotic arm.

[Image: NASA Ames]

The series is comprised of more than a dozen contests, each asking for solutions to a particular piece of the robotic arm, though sometimes the individual contests will involve parts that overlap with others. A total of $25,000 will be awarded, spread out over the multiple contests, with prize amounts ranging from $250 to $5,000. Participants can compete in as many or as few of the contests as they which, as each has been designed to stand alone. Winning solutions may be incorporated into Astrobee’s robotic arm and used on the ISS.

Three winners have already been chosen. Nino Wunderlin is a 23-year-old university student from South Africa, studying for a Master’s Degree in Mechanical Engineering with a specialty in liquid rocket propulsion systems. He used his knowledge in electronics and control, aerostructures for lightweight design and 3D modeling and design for his entry in the “Design an Attachment Mechanism” contest.

“I wanted to challenge myself and see if my work was good enough for NASA,” he said.

37-year-old Conceptual Engineer Myrdal Manzano, from the Philippines, joined Freelancer.com after being laid off from his job more than two years ago. He worked on the “Design a ‘Smart’ Attachment Mechanism” contest, applying his skills in 3D design, PCB layout design, manufacturing, circuit design, robotics and automation.

36-year-old Amit Biswas is a Software Engineer who entered the “Design a Simple Deployment Mechanism” contest with his company, Triassic Robotics. His skills in mechanical engineering, CAD and electronics helped him meet strict requirements for size, weight and power consumption. The design took him about two weeks of work.

“I am very passionate about robotics in general and space robotics is particularly interesting,” said Biswas. “I was excited to work on this project right from the beginning.”

The Astrobee Challenges Series still has nine contests that have not yet been unlocked, so you can still enter if you’re interested. The final challenge is scheduled to conclude in September of this year. Astrobee will be sent to the ISS in 2019 to replace the existing SPHERES robot, and will help astronauts with everything from housekeeping to spacecraft monitoring. It can perform tasks autonomously as well as take direction from Mission Control at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.

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