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Saturday 16 December 2017

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The Importance Of Prizes

by michael belfiore
Last month I visited Carnegie Mellon University’s Field Robotics Center in Pittsburgh. The center is the home of Astrobotic, one of the teams competing for the Google Lunar X PRIZE. There I spent time with engineers, students, and the team’s leader, robotics pioneer Red Whittaker.

I watched the team field test their Red Rover prototype rover (and even got to drive it myself), sat in on team meetings, watched structural testing in the lab, and was treated to presentations from student-driven projects in autonomous lunar landing, rover control user interface design, spacecraft guidance, and more.

Astrobotic is the current favorite to win the $30 million Google Lunar X PRIZE, but there are close to 20 other teams from around the world in the competition, and the outcome is far from certain. From the point of view of the prize organizers, it’s a tremendous boon. Imagine: for the mere promise of $30 million in prize money, the prize organizers have sparked far more than $30 million of effort from a widely diverse group of teams. Some of these teams are comprised of leading experts in the fields of spacecraft and robotics design, but many others have as their members relative novices. And, actually, that’s to the good.

An incentive prize for innovation is often the best way to bring fresh thinking to bear on an intractable problem. Perhaps insurance company executives are among the best to win a robotic vehicle challenge, as was demonstrated during DARPA’s second Grand Challenge race. By putting out a prize, a sponsoring organization doesn’t try to select the best teams for the job; those teams select themselves. And the best teams for the job may not be the usual suspects in a given field.

Charles Lindbergh was an unknown mail pilot in 1927 when he flew from New York to Paris to claim the $250,000 Orteig Prize for the first successful nonstop transatlantic airplane flight. The favorite to win, a crew put together by famed aviator Richard Byrd, was sitting on the ground with other competitors when Lindbergh took off first in less-than-ideal weather. Turns out Lindbergh’s experience flying the mail gave him an edge over his competitors.

Burt Rutan’s company Scaled Composites was best known for helping homebuilders construct their own airplanes in their garages when it used homebuilding techniques to create SpaceShipOne. Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie flew the rocket-powered airplane out of the atmosphere in 2004 to claim the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for the first privately built manned spacecraft. Rutan cut his teeth building model airplanes. Melvill is a self-taught flier and high school dropout. Not exactly the stereotypical “steely-eyed missile men” of past government space programs.

Prizes for innovations have the potential to do far more than encourage a technological stunt. By “taking the technology excuse off the table,” as former DARPA director Tony Tether termed it to me, they can spark entirely new fields of endeavor, potentially creating new whole industries in the process. Next time you fly on a passenger airplane, thank Raymond Orteig for offering the prize that removed the question mark from passenger aviation as anything more than an amusement for the rich.

We may be witness to a similar moment in history with the Google Lunar X PRIZE. If it is won by the 2015 deadline, it may open a whole new universe of affordable planetary science and even entertainment.

You can watch Astrobotic’s prototype rover interacting with kindergardeners in a video I captured for my blog:

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4 Responses to “The Importance Of Prizes”

  1. There are 29 teams not “close to 20”.

  2. Thanks for that correction, Michael. You are right, there are indeed 29 teams, not the 19 I counted too quickly as I wrote this commentary.

  3. John Bowen says:

    Great article, Michael.

    One small quibble: by my recollection, the original Orteig prize was $25,000, not $250,000. Of course the $25,000 went a lot further in those days.

    Regardless, keep up the good work!

  4. Thanks for the encouragement, John, much appreciated. You are, of course, right about the $25,000 Orteig Prize. I added one too many zeros to my commentary!

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