NASA Tournament Lab


Exploring Hell: Avoiding Obstacles on a Clockwork Rover

To explore the daunting surface of Venus, NASA needs an innovative obstacle avoidance sensor for its mechanical clockwork rover.

This challenge is closed


This challenge is closed

Meet the Winners


Imagine a world hot enough to turn lead into a puddle, where the atmospheric pressure can crush a nuclear-powered submarine. Now imagine sending a rover to explore that world. 

Venus, ancient sister of Earth with a planetary environment just this side of hellish, has been visited by a handful of probes since the early days of space flight.  Of the many missions to our celestial neighbor, only about a dozen have made contact with the surface of the planet. The longest-lived landers only managed to function for a couple of hours before succumbing to the relentlessly oppressive heat and pressure.

Despite the punishing conditions, previous missions to Venus have nevertheless delivered important information, such as:

  • Surface temperature: in excess of 450°C
  • Surface pressure: 92 times that of Earth
  • Wind speeds: 0.3 – 1.3 meters per second
    • Due to the extreme pressure, this low wind speed feels almost like gale-force winds here on Earth
  • Length of Venusian day: 116 Earth days

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), under a grant from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program, is studying a mission concept to return to the surface of Venus, known as the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE), something not accomplished since the Soviet Vega 2 landed in 1985.

Current, state-of-the-art, military-grade electronics fail at approximately 125°C, so mission scientists at JPL have taken their design cues from a different source: automatons and clockwork operations. Powered by wind, the AREE mission concept is intended to spend months, not minutes, exploring the landscape of our sister world. Built of advanced alloys, AREE will be able to collect valuable long-term longitudinal scientific data utilizing both indirect and direct sensors.

As the rover explores the surface of Venus, collecting and relaying data to an orbiter overhead, it must also detect obstacles in its path like rocks, crevices, and steep terrain. To assist AREE on its groundbreaking mission concept, JPL needs an equally groundbreaking obstacle avoidance sensor, one that does not rely on vulnerable electronic systems. For that reason, JPL is turning to the global community of innovators and inventors to design this novel avoidance sensor for AREE. JPL is interested in all approaches, regardless of technical maturity.

This sensor will be the primary mechanism by which the potential rover would detect and navigates through dangerous situations during its operational life. By sensing obstacles such as rocks, crevices, and inclines, the rover would then navigate around the obstruction, enabling the rover to continue to explore the surface of Venus and collect more observational data.

JPL has issued this Challenge to the global community because the rover must have the ability to successfully navigate in such a demanding environment in order to qualify for additional developmental funding. While the mission to the surface of Venus may be years off, the development of a suitably robust rover sensor will strengthen the case for returning to Venus with a rover, something that has never been attempted before.

What You Can Do To Cause A Breakthrough

  • Click ACCEPT CHALLENGE to sign up for the challenge
  • Read the Challenge Guidelines to learn about the requirements and rules
  • Share this challenge. Show your friends, your family, or anyone you know who has a passion for discovery.
  • Start a conversation in our Forum, or join an existing conversation, ask questions or connect with other innovators.


Challenge Breakthrough

Using ancient approaches and modern material science, design a mechanical obstacle avoidance sensor for usage on an off-world planetary rover.


The goal of this single-stage challenge is to submit a fully mechanical sensor that meets the performance criteria listed below and can be incorporated into the existing AREE model – competitors do not need to demonstrate how their sensor will connect to the rover, only that their design can provide the desired functionality.

Below are several profile images of the rover, as currently envisioned by the design team:

A close up of a device

Description automatically generated

The actuator in any proposed sensor must be able to move a 6 cm diameter pin by a minimum of 3 cm with 25 N of force when an obstacle is encountered. This, in turn, will then trigger the rover to back off the obstacle and seek a new pathway forward.

The sensor must reliably respond when encountering:

  • Slopes greater than 30 degrees (either up or down hill)
    • Slopes less than 25 degrees must not trigger the sensor.
  • Rocks greater than 0.35 meters in height
    • Sensor must not trigger for rocks smaller than 0.3 meters in height
  • Holes/valleys greater than 0.35 meters deep, except for small holes which would not entrap the wheels.
    • Sensor must not trigger for holes shallower than 0.3 meters in depth
    • Holes narrower than 0.1 meters wide may be ignored by the sensor but it is not required to do so
    • Holes less than 0.5 meters long in the direction of travel may be ignored by the sensor but it is not required to do so
      • Holes greater than 0.1 meters wide and greater than 0.5 meters long and greater than 0.35 meters deep must be detected.

To assist competitors, the following image demonstrates possible scenarios that the rover may encounter during its mission:

Additional performance criteria:

  • Proposed technology must be designed with an anticipated operational lifespan of at least 6 months
  • Some basic electrical components are acceptable: wires, resistors and inductors
    • Capacitors, microchips or diodes are not acceptable without strong and compelling evidence for their inclusion
  • Limited power for the sensor is available from the turbine:
    • Average of 1W of power with a maximum of 15W on a limited basis and with justification
  • Proposed sensor must be compatible with the following physical constraints:
    • Sensor must not extend more than 1m from the body of the rover, or more than 1 meter beyond the sides of the body
    • Sensor must not be more than 0.875m off the surface (note, when detecting an obstacle it may rise higher than this height)
    • Sensor must have a mass at or below 25kg
    • Proposed design must be capable of being assembled using environmentally appropriate materials
  • Inputs:
    • The maximum number of inputs are one rotating shaft and two wires
      • rotating shaft may be of any size, rotated at any speed, with any amount of torque desired
      • one wire for power, one for ground/neutral; maximum voltage difference across the wires shall be 18 V or less, and a maximum current of 600 mA (i.e. essentially can be driven by 2x 9V battery)
    • Can be assumed that the rover is capable of pushing the obstacle avoidance system with 150N of force
  • Outputs:
    • Obstacle detection mechanism must move a pin(s) or shaft(s) 3 cm axially, with a force of 25N
      • Current rover design specifies a single pin, however, multiple pins could be considered in order to achieve the desired performance

Rover Specifications

  • Rover body: 2.0 m by 1.2 meter rectangle
    • Wheel contact points are located on a 1.5m square
    • Ground clearance of 0.38m
  • Rover wheels: 4 wheels, each 0.75m in diameter and 0.3m wide, located 1.5 m apart on center
    • All-wheel drive, only front wheels turn left/right
  • Rover turbine: 2.0m diameter; 1.5m above ground clearance


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:

  • First place winner will receive public recognition at the 2020 NIAC Symposium. Winner will also receive invitation to attend (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)


Open to submissions February 18, 2020

Submission deadline May 29, 2020 @ 5pm ET

Judging June 1 to July 2, 2020

Winners Announced July 6, 2020

How do I win?

To be eligible for an award, your proposal must, at minimum:

  • Satisfy the Performance Criteria described above
  • Thoughtfully address the Submission Form questions
  • Score higher than your competitors’!

Judging Scorecard

A. Likelihood of Successful OperationIs the concept likely to meet the challenge obstacles avoidance requirements? 65% total
A.1Does this submission include a compelling diagram/schematic of the proposed sensor?15%
A.2Does this submission include appropriate justification or citations for the proposed sensor?5%
A.3Would the system detect rocks/holes/valleys greater than 0.35 meters tall/deep? 10%
A.4Would the system detect slopes or combinations of slopes/obstacles that could result in an angle of greater than 30 degrees? 10%
A.5Would the system ignore rocks/holes/valleys less than 0.3 meters tall/deep? 10%
A.6Would the design produce a 3 cm displacement of a shaft/pin with 25N of force? 5%

Is the design compatible with the current rover architecture? 

  • Sensor must not extend more than 1m from the body of the rover
  • Sensor must not be more than 0.875m off the surface
  • Sensor must have a mass at or below 25kg
  • Proposed design must be capable of being assembled using environmentally appropriate materials
B. Is the concept feasible to construct? 

Is the design something that could actually be constructed?

Are there any practical limitations to implementing the design?

C. Can the concept be adjusted to work in Venus conditions

Would the concept, if built out of the right materials, operate at Venus’s high temperatures?

Would the concept operate at Venus pressure?


Your Submission

NOTE: Competitors are encouraged to present citations (or other relevant supporting information) to bolster the case for their design’s suitability for this application. Citations may be made inline with text or may be included as a piece of supporting documentation.

NOTE: Responses should include a schematic or diagram of their proposed avoidance sensor design. The diagram should be attached as a supporting document. Acceptable file formats include: WORD, PDF or JPEG. Competitors wishing to include CAD files may do so: 2D CAD files can be shared as a PDF, 3D CAD files should be shared as a Parasolid . x_t file.

  1. Please describe, in a non-confidential way, the operation of your sensor.
  2. Please provide a schematic diagram of your proposed sensor. Permitted file extensions: .doc, .pdf, or .jpg. CAD files may be uploaded as PDF (for 2D models) or . x_t (for 3D models). Zipped file folders acceptable.
  3. Please provide any additional information you would like included with your submission, citations, additional diagrams, etc.). Zipped file folders acceptable.
  4. Please indicate the performance criteria your sensor can achieve:
    1. Move a 6cm pin a minimum of 3cm
    2. Detect slopes greater than 30 degrees (up or down)
    3. Detect rocks greater than 0.35m in height
    4. Detect holes deeper than 0.35m
  5. Please describe how your sensor is suitable for the operational environment on Venus. Consider describing how your sensor design will cope with high temperatures, high atmospheric pressure, wind, launch vibrations, etc while in operation.
  6. Please describe the materials you anticipate needing for constructing the sensor.
  7. Please describe the electrical power requirements of your sensor. Describe what electrical components are included in your sensor and why. If none, please indicate “Not applicable”.
  8. Please describe how your proposed sensor will trigger the pin(s).
  9. Please describe how your sensor meets the physical constraints of the current rover design (i.e. assembled of environmentally appropriate materials, mass ≤ 25kg, not more than 1m from rover body, not more than 0.875m off the surface)
  10. Please indicate the current maturity level of your sensor:
    1. Conceptual
    2. Prototype
    3. Engineering model available
    4. Commercialized
  11. Anything else you like to include about yourself and/or your proposed sensor? Possible topics: a short blurb that could be used to describe you, should you be selected as a winner in this Challenge. What inspired you to compete in this Challenge?
  12. If you would like to supplement the information provided above with a demonstration video of your sensor, please provide a private Youtube or Vimeo link here. Please keep the duration under 5 minutes.
  13. If you would like to supplement the information provided above with a short video pitch for your proposed sensor, please provide a private Youtube or Vimeo link here. Please keep the duration under 5 minutes.

You may submit multiple solutions.


Participation Eligibility:

The Prize is open to anyone age 18 or older participating as an individual or as a team. Individual competitors and teams may originate from any country, as long as United States federal sanctions do not prohibit participation (see: If you are a NASA employee, a Government contractor, or employed by a Government Contractor, your participation in this challenge may be restricted.

Submissions must be made in English. All challenge-related communication will be in English.

No specific qualifications or expertise in the field of mechanical sensors is required. NASA encourages outside individuals and non-expert teams to compete and propose new solutions.

To be eligible to compete, you must comply with all the terms of the challenge as defined in the Challenge-Specific Agreement.

Intellectual Property

Innovators who are awarded a prize for their submission must agree to grant NASA a royalty free, non-exclusive, irrevocable, world-wide license in all Intellectual Property demonstrated by the winning/awarded submissions. See the Challenge-Specific Agreement for complete details.

Registration and Submissions:

Submissions must be made online (only), via upload to the website, on or before 5:00 pm ET on May 29, 2020. No late submissions will be accepted.

Selection of Winners:

Based on the winning criteria, prizes will be awarded per the weighted Judging Criteria section above.

Judging Panel:

The determination of the winners will be made by HeroX based on evaluation by relevant NASA specialists.

Additional Information

  • By participating in the challenge, each competitor agrees to submit only their original idea. Any indication of "copying" amongst competitors is grounds for disqualification.
  • All applications will go through a process of due diligence; any application found to be misrepresentative, plagiarized, or sharing an idea that is not their own will be automatically disqualified.
  • All ineligible applicants will be automatically removed from the competition with no recourse or reimbursement.
  • No purchase or payment of any kind is necessary to enter or win the competition.
  • Void wherever restricted or prohibited by law.

Challenge Updates

In case you missed it...

July 28, 2020, 9 a.m. PDT by Despina Maliaka

Last week we had the pleasure of speaking with the five winners of the Exploring Hell Challenge.  In this ideation challenge, innovators were tasked with designing a mechanical obstacle avoidance sensor to help the Automaton Rover for Extreme Environments (AREE) explore the brutally harsh surface of Venus.

572 entries were received from over 80 countries, and NASA found many of them to be outstanding.  But the five winning submissions really stood apart from the rest. Be sure to watch this recording of the Exploring Hell Webinar as we talk with the NASA sponsors and pick the brains of our winners.


Thank you to everyone who participated, and congratulations once again to our winners!


Meet the Winners of the Exploring Hell Challenge!

July 15, 2020, 2:48 p.m. PDT by Kyla Jeffrey

We are thrilled to be hosting a webinar with the winners of the Exploring Hell Challenge, NASA, and HeroX! Join us next Thursday, July 23rd at 10 am PDT (Los Angeles).

This is your opportunity to learn more about the winning solutions and the teams who submitted them. 

The panel discussion will be moderated by HeroX's Kal Sahota and include panelists:

  • Jonathan Sauder, NASA JPL
  • Ryon Stewart, NASA Tournament Labs
  • Christian Cotichini, HeroX CEO
  • Challenge Winners
    • Youssef Ghali - Venus Feelers
    • Team Rovetronics - Skid n' Bump – All-mechanical, Mostly Passive
    • Callum Heron - Direction Biased Obstacle Sensor (DBOS)
    • KOB ART - AMII Sensor
    • Matthew Reynolds - ECHOS: Evaluate Cliffs Holes Objects & Slopes

Register Here

Announcing the Winners of the Exploring Hell Challenge!

July 6, 2020, noon PDT by Kyla Jeffrey

We are proud to announce the winners in the $30,000 Challenge - Exploring Hell: Avoiding Obstacles on a Clockwork Rover!

By the submission deadline, we received 572 entries from over 80 countries. The Judging Panel was so thrilled by the number of outstanding and innovative entries that NASA is recognizing an additional 12 solutions! 

In addition to the $30,000 USD of planned prizes, NASA awarded an additional $4,000 split between the submission with the Most Innovative solution and the submission with the Best Prototype. Ten additional submissions are recognized as Honorable Mentions.

Additional details on the submissions can be found here. You are also invited to join us for a moderated discussion with the winners and NASA on Thursday, July 23 at 10:00 am PDT (Lost Angeles). Register Here

The top award recipients are as follows:

  • 1st Place, $15,000: "Venus Feelers" by Youssef Ghali.
  • 2nd Place, $10,000: "Skid n' Bump – All-mechanical, Mostly Passive" by Team Rovetronics.
  • 3rd Place, $5,000: "Direction Biased Obstacle Sensor (DBOS)" by Callum Heron.

NASA was incredibly impressed by two additional solutions and awarded $4,000 of unplanned prize money for:

  • Best prototype, $2,000: "AMII Sensor" by KOB ART.
  • Most innovative, $2,000: "ECHOS: Evaluate Cliffs Holes Objects & Slopes" by Matthew Reynolds.

While we were only able to award 5 prizes, there were very many outstanding entries and we would also like to acknowledge the following Honorable Mentions (in no particular order):

We would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who entered the challenge. While we were only able to recognize a small fraction of those who entered, there were so many other insightful solutions, we are confident that many of the participants will do great things in the future. Thank you all for helping make this challenge a huge success.

We would also like to thank all of our supporters, partners, judges, and anyone else who in any way contributed to our competition community. Without you, we would not have had the challenge that we did.

Five Days Left to Submit (TIPS)

May 25, 2020, 8 a.m. PDT by Kyla Jeffrey

We are quickly approaching the final days open for submission to the Exploring Hell Challenge The deadline is Friday, May 29 at 5:00 pm Eastern Time (New York/USA).

Here are a couple of last-minute tips for a smooth entry process:

1. Begin your submission process several days before the cutoff time. This allows you to ensure everything you have been working on can be seamlessly integrated into the form. 

2. Your submission will not be reviewed until you click the orange "Submit Entry" button at the top of the final review page. Please remember to do this! Once submitted, you will receive a confirmation email.

3. Review the Challenge Guidelines to ensure your submission is complete. Pay particular attention to the judging criteria which will be the scorecard used to evaluate your entry.

Thanks so much, and good luck to all!

1 Week Remaining

May 22, 2020, 3 a.m. PDT by Kyla Jeffrey

There's exactly one week left to submit your solution to the Exploring Hell Challenge! 

You're so close. You can do this!  

Remember, the final submission deadline is Friday, May 29 at 5:00 pm Eastern Time (New York/USA). No submissions received after this time will be accepted, so make sure to get yours in as soon as possible. 

If you haven't already, we recommend watching the recording from last week's webinar:


Meet the Winners

Meet the Winners

The Exploring Hell Challenge received 572 submissions from people in over 80 countries! The Judging Panel was so thrilled by the number of outstanding and innovative entries that NASA is recognizing an additional 12 solutions! 

In addition to the $30,000 USD of planned prizes, NASA awarded an additional $4,000 split between the submission with the Most Innovative solution and the submission with the Best Prototype. Ten additional submissions are recognized as Honorable Mentions.

HeroX and NASA hosted a webinar to recognize the winners and learn more about their winning solutions. You can view the webinar here:


1st Place, $15,000 Prize 

"Venus Feelers" by Youssef Ghali

Youssef Ghali is an awarded Egyptian architect and product designer. With a passion for experimenting with engineering solutions, Youssef’s all-time motto and principle is “form follows function” and as a strong believer of practicality and the power of minimalism in inventions he approached this project with a simple yet creative direction that can be summed up in one sentence: “back to basics from a new point of view”


Second Place, $10,000 Prize

"Skid n' Bump – All-mechanical, Mostly Passive" by Team Rovetronics

Eric and Martin are two 24-year-old career mechanical engineers living in LA and Santa Barbara, respectively. The two were dorm-mates their freshmen year at UC Santa Barbara, and completed several projects together while attending college, including competing in the SpaceX Hyperloop competition for their senior year capstone project. They both graduated in 2017. Both have a passion for aerospace engineering and love following the amazing projects carried out by NASA.





Third Place, $5,000 Prize

 "Direction Biased Obstacle Sensor (DBOS)" by Callum Heron

I undertook this design challenge for two reasons. Firstly, I sometimes feel shortchanged as a mechanically-focused-mechatronics engineer that I wasn’t born in the era of typewriters and automata. The idea of needing clock springs and Stirling engines to solve the world’s problems is an inherently pleasant one to me, as strange as it must sound to normal people. So, seeing this challenge on Scott Manley’s youtube channel naturally made me drop my automatic curtain project and sign up immediately. The second reason I entered was because visiting JPL, seeing the gear, and meeting the people has been an unattainable dream of mine ever since reading “The Martian” six years ago at university. This challenge suddenly made my dream feel slightly more attainable



Best prototype, $2,000 Prize

 "AMII Sensor" by KOB ART

The judging panel was incredibly impressed by the full-scale prototype developed by KOB ART and awarded an additional, unplanned prize of $2,000 USD to acknowledge their efforts.

KOB ART is a design company located in Riga, Latvia, that specializes in product development, design, and installations as well as in creating special custom-made solutions. Our work is a combination of crafting, technologies, electronics, architecture, and design.

KOB ART is a family business founded by Kristine Berza and Oskars Berzs. We both are dreamers with a technical and artistic background. This project is a challenge for us, a step outside of our comfort zone, but we love to challenge ourselves, to broaden our horizons, use different technologies and find different solutions to make ideas come to life. It is our motto and that is what keeps us going!

Art Director: Kristine Berza

Technical director: Oskars Berzs



Most innovative, $2,000 USD Prize

"ECHOS: Evaluate Cliffs Holes Objects & Slopes" by Matthew Reynolds

The judging panel was incredibly impressed by the use of SONAR and the detailed proposal to support its use and awarded an additional, unplanned prize of $2,000 USD to acknowledge their innovation.

Matthew is a Mechanical Engineer and loves novel engineering challenges. Designing a system to operate on Venus is unlike any challenge he has faced before. Feeling slopes and rocks were simple. Matthew initially tried to design a mechanism to feel for holes, ignoring small ones but anything plausible was heavy & complex.

Matthew decided that a remote hole detector was simpler, and with Venus' thick atmosphere, SONAR became the obvious choice. With difficulty doing anything electrically on Venus, a mechanical SONAR was born.




While we were only able to award five prizes, there were many outstanding entries and NASA would also like to acknowledge the following honorable mentions (in no particular order):

"Cane and Able" by Martin Holmes 


"CATS - Cable Actuated Tactile Sensor" by Team - Spaceship EAC


"Clockwork Cucaracha" by Michael Sandstrom


"DEMoN Fire Sensor" by Santiago Forcada Pardo


"The Double Octopus" by Thomas Schmidt


"Mechanical Logic Obstacle Avoidance Sensor" by Christopher Wakefield


"Mechanical Sensor for Avoiding Compound Obstacles" by Aurelian Zapciu


"SPIDER (Sense, Perceive, ID in Exploration Rover)" by Ryan Zacheree Lewis


"Vibrissae Inspired Mechanical Avoidance Sensor" by ARChaic Team 


"V-Track with Scotch Yoke Clinometer – Prototype" by  Jason McCallister