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.