With its budget under pressure and its future under debate, prize challenges and competitions have a unique appeal to NASA. To the financial leverage of paying only for success and the intellectual outreach of looking beyond traditional contractors is added the publicity boost of being seen to encourage innovation.

Not a bad return on a small investment for a space agency struggling to stay in manned spaceflight, and keep its aeronautics research relevant. And NASA's success with challenges is catching the eye of other government agencies.

NASA's flagship is its Centennial Challenges, which since 2005 have ranged from designing an astronaut's glove to flying a lunar lander. “We have done nine challenges, and 24 competitions within those nine,” says Larry Cooper, Centennial Challenges program executive. “We have awarded over $6 million to 15 teams, and had more than 100 teams compete.”

Past events have seen technology breakthroughs, winners of 2011's Green Flight Challenge more than doubling the targeted fuel efficiency and boosting interest in electric aircraft. Others have kick-started new entrants in fields from laser power-beaming to reusable suborbital spaceflight.

Three Centennial Challenges are active. In June, Worcester (Mass.) Polytechnic Institute (WPI) will host the $1.5 million Sample-Return Robot Challenge. First staged in June 2012, when no one won the prize, this contest is for a robot that can locate and retrieve geologic samples from varied terrain without human control.

Also space-related, the $1.5 million Night Rover Challenge is expected to be launched shortly, with the first competition to take place at NASA Glenn Research Center in Ohio early in 2014. The goal is to stimulate innovations in high energy-density storage enabling a Moon rover to operate through the lunar night, but also benefitting terrestrial vehicles and renewable-energy generation systems.

Next is expected to be the $1.5 million Unmanned Aircraft Systems Airspace Operations Challenge (UAS AOC). To be conducted in two stages of increasing difficulty, with the first competition planned for spring 2014, this challenge will tackle the thorny problem of the safe integration of unmanned aircraft into national airspace.

In the $500,000 Level 1 challenge, contestants will have to demonstrate their UAS can fly reliably and accurately, stay well clear of other aircraft, obey the same rules as other air traffic and continue to operate safely even after the command-and-control link or GPS navigation is lost.

A year after the Level 1 prize is won, NASA plans to stage the $1 million Level 2 challenge, which will require competing UAS to maintain safe separation from non-cooperative air traffic not fitted with automatic dependent surveillance broadcast systems. The unmanned aircraft will also be required to “be able to communicate verbally with the air traffic control system under lost link conditions,” says NASA.

Compared with grants and contracts, traditional ways of doing business with NASA, prize challenges “offer a way to engage competitors not within our normal reach,” says Cooper. “And it's appealing to them because of the low burden of reporting to the government.” For the agency, “it's an opportunity to encourage development of a whole range of solutions, rather than NASA having to pick one and award a contract.”

Then there is the fiscal argument. “We only pay out if they succeed, so there's a lot of financial leverage for NASA,” he says. In Green Flight, teams spent a total of $7.6 million in pursuit of the $1.47 million purse. And there is the opportunity to pick up technology. “If we are interested in the IP [intellectual property], we can license it. But they retain the IP and can license it to other people. It's a win-win.”

In the case of UAS Airspace Operations Challenge, “it's an innovative way to cast a wider net,” says Daryl Davidson, executive director of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) Foundation. The $1 million prize for the second challenge, meanwhile, “is enough to get companies involved,” and not just student teams, he says.

NASA has a set of precepts to identify ideas suitable for Centennial Challenges, one of which is that the problem “is open to many possible solutions,” says Cooper. “The problem with having problems to solve is not having enough money to explore the entire space of solutions,” he says. “If you know the answer, go buy it. If you're not certain, then use a prize challenge to let lots of people have a go at it.”

Another requirement is that there is “an objective way to determine the winner, otherwise that's one way to get the competitors annoyed,” Cooper says. A challenge that will capture the public's attention, as did the Lunar Lander and Green Flight competitions, is a further requirement.

NASA also wants to identify problems requiring solutions that go beyond its own needs, Cooper says. “We do not want to put any more money in than we absolutely need to. So if there is a life after the challenge, an opportunity to make a business or commercialize a technology, we can put more emphasis on that and less on the purse.”

At any time, the agency is looking at hundreds of ideas for all of its mission directorates, he says. The agency issues requests for information (RFI) to gauge competitor interest in a challenge, as it did late last year for the UAS AOC.

“We take one or two [challenge ideas] a year to senior management,” Cooper says. The Centennial Challenges program has a budget of $5 million a year, which NASA can use to launch a prize then hold for up to 10 years. “That's unique,” he says. “We are not stuck in a 'use it or lose it' situation.”

NASA has learned a few lessons along the way to becoming among the most adept of government agencies at using prize challenges—one or two from its failures.

Cooper cites the MoonROx Challenge, which expired in 2009 with its $1 million purse unclaimed. The goal was to generate oxygen from simulated lunar regolith. “We misjudged the interest, the size of the prize, difficulty of the challenge and its commercial potential, and never got anyone to register.”

NASA now takes “a lot more time up front to understand the lay of the land, to announce potential challenges and gauge the interest, so when we are ready to launch, we have the rules and can start registering contestants immediately,” he says.

NASA has also learned to work with outside organizations to conduct the challenges, as the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency (CAFE) Foundation did for Green Flight, bringing in Google to sponsor the event, for which NASA offered its biggest aviation prize ever—$1.35 million.

Partnering “saves us money, allows greater flexibility, brings in outside technical experts and broadens the base of support,” Cooper says. Sample-Return Robot, being staged with WPI, lists 14 teams as active, including one from Canada and one from Estonia. Night Rover will be staged with Cleantech Open, a non-profit organization that acts as a business accelerator for “clean technology” entrepreneurs.

NASA received more than 40 responses to its October 2012 RFI on the UAS AOC. “We are evaluating proposals for the management organization and should be underway in the spring,” he says. Partnering comes at a price. One organization that holds its own contests lost interest in hosting the airspace challenge when it realized NASA would only fund the prize purse and there would be no money to support running the competition, unless sponsors could be found.

Cooper cites the Google-backed Green Flight as among the most successful of NASA's recent challenges. “We saw a significant advancement in the state of the art for energy efficiency in that size of aircraft. It captured public interest, the winner was nominated for the 2012 Collier trophy, and there was a commercial follow-on,” he says, with winner Pipistrel planning to produce hybrid- and electric-powered aircraft.

The Astronaut Glove and Lunar Lander challenges, meanwhile, spurred the formation of new businesses. Peter Homer, the Maine-based engineer who won the 2007 and 2009 glove design challenges, formed Flagsuit to develop space-suit gloves and is now a NASA contractor. Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace, first and second in the 2009 Lunar Lander contest, were selected to provide commercial suborbital launches under NASA's Flight Opportunities program.

“The challenges have helped build a pool of potential competitors for procurements down the road,” says Cooper. But there is no guarantee. LaserMotive received some NASA study contracts after winning the Power Beaming Challenge, only to see the agency's interest in laser propulsion wane (see page 54).

Typically, Cooper says, NASA will run a challenge “till someone wins, or until it looks unlikely to be won in any reasonable timescale.” The $2 million Power Beaming Challenge, to demonstrate wireless power transmission to a space-elevator “climber,” was staged four times between 2005 and 2009, when LaserMotive won the $900,000 second-level prize for powering a climber up a 1-km cable with a laser.

“The winner did not get the top prize, but they came so close it was not worth repeating the competition just to give the money away,” he says—a decision that disappointed LaserMotive. The companion Strong Tether Challenge to demonstrate materials for space-elevator cables never produced a winner.

There have been challenges that have proved too hard, such as MoonROx, says Cooper, “but we have never had one that was too easy.” Even though Green Flight was won the first time, “when we put the rules together, we thought no one would win it for years. But two teams came close to doubling the requirement.”

Following a successful competition can be a challenge in itself. “Thrilled” with the results of Green Flight, for which he drafted the first rules, NASA Langley engineer Mark Moore came up with the idea for a university-focused “eVSTOL” prize for a sub-scale electric-powered vertical/short-takeoff-and-landing aircraft. But the Centennial Challenges program decided not to fund it.

The CAFE Foundation, meanwhile, has had a “tremendous response” to its proposal to follow Green Flight with not one, but five challenges, to be run over five years with a prize purse totalling $13.5 million, says President Brien Seeley. The CAFE Green Flight Challenge Program would culminate in demonstration of a quiet, fast, autonomous “sky taxi.”

Challenges are becoming part of the way NASA operates. “Centennial Challenges is our flagship program, but we have experience with other prize types—not just big technology demonstrations where teams bring hardware and compete with others,” says Jennifer Gustetic, NASA program executive for challenges and competitions.

Individual NASA programs can fund prizes, and the volume of challenges is growing. “It's another tool in their toolkit” to solve problems, she says.

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