NASA needs you!

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, under a grant from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program, is running a public challenge to develop an obstacle avoidance sensor for a possible future Venus rover. The “Exploring Hell: Avoiding Obstacles on a Clockwork Rover” challenge is seeking the public’s designs for a sensor that could be incorporated into the design concept.

In 2018, we met Hedgehog at the Philadelphia Maker Faire – a hopping robot designed to explore extreme environments. This project was funded by our friends at NASA Innovative Advance Concepts and they’re once again joining with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory – this time to explore Venus! Jonathan Sauder from JPL announced their latest challenge to detect obstacles on the clockwork robot they’re building to explore Venus.

Flyer for Venus robot challenge: Exploring Hell

Jonathan sent over this brief:

With its sulfuric acid clouds, temperatures over 450°C, and 92 times the surface pressure of Earth, Venus is one of the most hostile planetary environments in the solar system. Prior missions have only survived hours! But an automaton (or clockwork mechanical robot) could solve this problem. By utilizing high-temperature alloys, the clockwork rover would survive for months, allowing it to collect and return valuable long-term science data from the surface of Venus.

At NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, we are turning this innovative concept into reality under a NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) funded study. We’ve been working hard on this project, but we could use YOUR help to address some of our toughest mechanical design challenges! The Mechanical Maker Challenges are a series of challenges seeking to engage YOUR creativity to invent mechanical ways of performing traditionally electrical tasks. Top prize, a trip to NASA JPL to talk about your winning design with spacecraft engineers!

Our Second Challenge: The Mechanical Obstacle Detector

Current rovers sense obstacles and navigate around them utilizing image recognition software. Unfortunately, image recognition requires a lot of processing power, which is something that doesn’t exist for Venus because of its high temperatures (no way to keep advanced electronics cool). Further, Venus has night which is 60 Earth days long. We need to system that will detect obstacles during the night, without complex electronics, and provide a mechanical output to our rover to let it know it needs to change directions. When an obstacle is detected, the rover will reverse directions, turn, and then try again in a new direction.


3D model of automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE) concept

Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE) concept

Dates to remember

Webinar.                             March 19, 2020. Sign up here.

Submission deadline        May 29, 2020 @ 5pm ET

Judging                               June 1 to July 2, 2020

Winners Announced         July 6, 2020


The Challenge offers up to $30,000 USD in prize money.

  • First place winner will receive up to $15,000
  • Second place winner will receive up to $10,000
  • Third place winner will receive up to $5000

In addition to the above cash prizes, competitors may also be considered for the following non-monetary awards:

  • Public recognition at the 2020 NIAC Symposium (travel costs associated with attendance not included) in September.
  • Invitation to visit JPL including a tour of the lab and to meet with the challenge owning engineering team to discuss the design (travel costs associated with getting to JPL not included)
  • Opportunity to collaborate with NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop the mechanical sensor (travel costs associated with getting to JPL not included)

Online information

Announcement: NASA Wants Your Help Designing a Venus Rover Concept

Challenge details here:

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In addition, meet the man in person – Jonathan will be speaking on May 7th for our next Makers’ Meetup! Stay tuned for more details.