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Determined WVU students are first, and now only, winners of NASA robot competition

Team clapping

WVU’s Chizhao Yang, center, cheers and applauds with his teammates during the NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge at Worcester Polytechnic Institute Monday, September 5, 2016 in Worcester, Massachusetts. The team successfully completed the challenge.

On Labor Day evening, a group of 10 West Virginia University students gathered around a pile of pizza boxes and textbooks, recapping their weekends and planning for the week of classes ahead.

Pizza, conversation and textbooks. Pretty ordinary evening in the life of college students, right?

But there was – and is – nothing ordinary about these 10 Mountaineer engineering students who had just accomplished the extraordinary – successfully navigating their robot, Cataglyphis, to amass 11 points to win the Level 2 competition for the Sample Robot Return Challenge as part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, bringing home a $750,000 prize, the largest NASA has awarded in the five-year history of the Challenge.


The goal of the Centennial Challenges is to allow citizens to help NASA solve problems through the sharing of information regarding the technology of rovers that travel to Mars. The information gleaned will help NASA engineers improve those technologies.

In total, the WVU team has prevailed over 50 others, winning $855,000 over three years of competition, including $5,000 for the Level 1 victory in 2014. That victory qualified it to compete at Level 2 in 2015, claiming $100,000 for the first Level 2 victory.

They are the only team to ever win Level 2 – and it’s a feat they’ve achieved for two consecutive years.

The success came through three years of tireless effort from a sharp cross-section of WVU students with an unrelenting commitment to excellence and accuracy. It was that powerful team dynamic that propelled their robot to autonomously collect four samples of varying difficulty levels and point values on a 20-acre field over a two-hour period and return them to the platform.

One of those students is Morgantown native Nick Ohi, who has participated all three years in the competition as he transitioned from an undergraduate to a doctoral student in the mechanical and aerospace engineering program at the Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources.

After last year’s victory, Ohi didn’t miss a beat. He and his teammates were ready to get back in the lab and improve their robot for the 2016 competition. They often invested more than 100 hours per week to perfect software, programming and the mission plan.

And improve it, they did.

“Our biggest improvement from last year was giving the robot the ability to autonomously make decisions, and that strategy really paid off for us,” Ohi said. “We added a lot of new features to make it smarter. We modified sensors and adjusted the camera to take one photo of the samples instead of nine, which sped up the process.”

According to Ken Stafford, director of the Robotics Resource Center at competition host school Worcester Polytechnic Institute and competition judge, those improvements were critical in the team’s successful performance.

“WVU is always a lot of fun to watch in the Challenge, but they really stole the show this year,” Stafford said. “They had some strong physical improvements that allowed their robot to make fast decisions and pick up samples faster. They had absolutely superior navigation, which was a big key for them.”

Monsi Roman, program director of the NASA Centennial Challenges, couldn’t agree more. She applauded WVU’s hybrid of strengths that led them to victory.

“There is no question that the engineering that went into the WVU rover is incredible,” Roman said. “It performed flawlessly. They took a multidisciplinary approach to designing the rover that is incredible to watch come to life. They just have a seamless camaraderie that strongly contributed to their success.”

One of many people who is proud of that success is Gene Cilento, Glen H. Hiner Dean of the Statler College.

“The Statler College is elated with the success of our students in this NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge,” Cilento said. “Their passion and enthusiasm, combined with the leadership and dedication of our faculty mentors, has been phenomenal. They have achieved significant national exposure for themselves and West Virginia University. We will use this success and award to continue to grow robotics education and research at WVU.”

Faculty mentors have been a not-so-secret weapon in the team’s success. Yu Gu, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering, has mentored and guided the team for three years with the guidance and consultation of his Statler colleagues Jason Gross, Marvin Cheng and Powsiri Klinkhachorn.

“We expected WVU to do well because they have amazing leadership in Dr. Gu,” Stafford said. “He is an inspiring leader full of enthusiasm and passion for robotics and genuinely cares about helping his students learn.”

West Virginia University President Gordon Gee said, “Dr. Gu, his colleagues and the students at Statler have shown us what Mountaineer determination is. They have improved every year, and as a result are the only team to come away winners. They are an inspiration to us all.” According to team members Ohi and Scott Harper, a master’s student in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Spencer, Gu’s leadership style empowers them to creatively approach strategy while he manages the details.

“Gu is the ideas guy,” Ohi said. “He comes up with the big picture, but he trusts our knowledge and lets us run with it. He just keeps us on track. It really fosters innovation and gives us the freedom to explore and to best approach problems.”

“Gu knows more about this robot than anyone else without actually touching anything on it,” Harper said.

But Gu is quick to give the credit to his students, leaving no question that the sweetest part of this milestone day for him is watching them relish the moment.

“I just feel really lucky to be able to work with this group,” Gu said. “They are really outstanding. I’ve watched many of them grow and take leadership roles as they transition from undergraduates to graduate students. They all have bright futures.”

But before they journey into their hopeful futures of helping mankind by developing cutting-edge space technology, they have some more immediate priorities on their lists.

“The first thing I’m going to do when I get home is sleep,” Ohi said with a laugh. “It’s been an exhausting few days. Once I get some rest, I can’t wait to do simple things, like hang out with friends I’ve neglected during all those nights we were locked away in the lab.”

Lesson learned: when you’ve accomplished the extraordinary by the age of 22, you shouldn’t underestimate the power of the ordinary.

NASA Centennial Challenges were initiated in 2005 to engage the public in the process of advanced technology development. The program offers incentive prizes to generate revolutionary solutions to problems of interest to NASA and the nation. Competitors are not supported by government funding and awards are only made to successful teams when the challenges are met.



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