Robot helpers for space station mock-up

Registration is now open for ESA’s first robotic competition on a mock-up of the International Space Station. The competition combines do-it-yourself and gaming skills in a robotic race to unload, carry and store cargo.

Youngsters from ESA Member States, competing in three age groups between 11 and 19 years old, have a wide degree of freedom when making their robots.

There are no restrictions and no recommendations – teams can build them from kits available in shops or recycle old parts to make better models, as long as they adhere to safety requirements.

Robots will receive their instructions wirelessly. To make the competition more challenging, the robot operators will not have a direct view of the playing field but have to rely on video from four cameras in the playing area and from sensors on their robot, if they choose to equip their robots with them.

The playground is a scaled-down model of the International Space Station, starting at ESA’s Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) and finishing at the European laboratory, Columbus. In under five minutes, the robots must unload cargo of different sizes from ATV, carry it to Columbus and stow it safely. Like in any game, there will be bonus points  and penalties. The route to Columbus includes scaling a ramp and all robots must end the game in one piece to qualify.

‘Astronauts’ floating around the game area must be avoided and teams must cope with losing video signal for up to 15 seconds. Colourful and exotic creations with personality will gain additional points. The road to the finals involves registration and design and flight acceptance reviews, similar to actual ESA mission procedures.

Pupils will learn problem-solving techniques and how to work as a team while increasing their curiosity and imagination. The competition is designed to test and practise skills from entrepreneurship to software design, management to artistic design, engineering to writing as well as marketing and invention.


ESA astronaut Luca Parmitano is the competition’s ambassador from the real Station. He will be orbiting Earth on his Volare mission when the finals take place in October. Watch his video below to learn more about robotics operations in space.