Since 2011, NASA has been using crowdsourcing to help them solve some of the problems that crop up on the International Space Station (ISS), from coming up with solutions to the difficulties of astronauts exercising in space, and the risks of Galactic Cosmic Ray exposure.
These crowd-sourced projects, framed as challenges, draw people from all over the world. To date, a dozen platforms exist to host the challenges, including a site called Freelancer.com, whose latest challenge involves designing a robotic arm for a new generation of free-flying robots on the ISS.
The robot, called the Astrobee, will fly around the ISS and is designed to help the astronauts develop technologies for use in zero-gravity, such as how they do their routine chores. It can now take on research, housekeeping, and monitoring duties without astronaut supervision.
The challenges on Freelancer have awards of $3,500 or less. Other platforms run challenges which award much larger sums of money, but the unifying idea is that anyone from anywhere can get involved and help out. Joe Griston from Freelancer told Business Insider that a recent contest involved designing a new patch and logo for a department within NASA. A couple from Australia won the prize.
‘Somebody that can solve your very difficult problem often doesn’t have traditional experience’
Steve Rader, who looks after the Centre of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) at NASA, has been with the organisation for 20 years. The duel role of the CoECI is to work both internally at NASA to try and get projects crowdsourced, and then also working with other agencies like the Department of Energy, Homeland Security, or IRS to help them understand how they can also use these tools.
He has seen from the get-go how NASA can solve problems and create new, innovative projects thanks to the intelligence and expertise made available by crowdsourcing.
“If you have large crowds of hundreds of thousands, or even millions of people in communities, that you actually have within those communities some very valuable high skill folks,” Rader told Business Insider. “The idea is somebody that can solve your very difficult problem often doesn’t have traditional experience.”
In fact, a main reason why crowdsourcing works so well is that a lot of the time, solutions are found by people who don’t have the same area of expertise as the problem.
“If it was a chemistry problem, and you put it out there, most of the time it’s not a chemist who solves that problem,” Rader said. “That’s a pretty big deal, because that’s really why industry has started using these methods, because the normal research and development approach is to put five chemists in a lab and have them work the research.”
NASA has some really difficult and technical challenges to solve
This makes sense when you’re dealing with space exploration. The ‘Space Poop Challenge’ on HeroX, for example, has a prize of $30,000 and so far around 80 participants. The goal is to find a way of solving the issues with the fact that astronauts may have to be encased in a space suit for 3 or 4 days at a time.
According to Rader, the challenges where they often find effective answers is when they ask for solutions to really specific problems, which taps into people’s deep expertise or skill.
For example, many algorithm challenges are run on Topcoder, in which teams look for a way to increase performance of a robot, device or program. Out of the million or so users on the platform, around 400,000 are data scientists, all of which have the potential to come up with the right idea.
“What you’re doing is you’re taking this group of high-skilled folks that know how to do algorithms, and you’re actually homing in on the absolute best, because you’re doing it as a competition,” Rader said. “We’ve had very good results in getting really complex algorithms done, either created, or they can run significantly faster or more accurately.”
One example was with the Robonaut project, which is the robot astronaut that resides on the International Space Station. Rader calls it a “development test-bed” as it is one of the few robots built that will not interfere with a human’s work if they are working right next to it. Instead, it will back off.
The Robonaut team wanted to try and find a better way for the vision system to recognise tools in different lighting conditions, and through crowdsourcing they found someone who had figured out a way to do it.
Here’s Robonaut in action on its first trip to the International Space Station:
One thing that Rader thinks is great about crowdsourcing is that it gets the public engaged with the exploration of space. NASA has always been open about what they’re doing in space, but by involving regular people in their projects, many people are fulfilling their dreams.
“The people who participate in projects write amazing quotes back to us about how this has been their dream to work as part of NASA, and even though it’s a small part, this has just been fantastic,” Rader said.