May 27, 2012

Mining the Moon: ASU team takes part in robot competition

Posted: May 27, 2012
ASU Lunabotics team
ASU Lunabotics team stands with their lunabot prior to the first round of the competition. Pictured here (from left to right) are: Jesse Banks, Ben Stinnett, Jim Crowell and Patrick McGarey.
Photo by: Nicole Cassis
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Arizona State University was one of more than 50 teams from around the world to test its Moon-mining robot design in the third annual Lunabotics Mining Competition. The event was held at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida May 21-26.

The international competition challenged university teams to design and build a remote controlled or autonomous excavation robot called a lunabot. The teams’ robots went head-to-head to determine which could mine and deposit the most simulated lunar soil within 10 minutes. Teams were judged on their robot’s dimensions and mass, regolith collection, dust mitigation, bandwidth and power usage, and the ability to control the lunabot from a remote control center.

The event drew teams from as far away as Bangladesh and Romania and included competitors from all across the United States. Top honors in the competition went to University of Alabama for earning the most cumulative overall points and Iowa State University for collecting and depositing the most regolith.

“We went into the competition with high hopes, but we were realistic since this was our first year competing,” says Ben Stinnett, leader of the ASU Lunabotics team. “We would have loved to walk away with a prize, but we are happy with the amazing experiences we gained at this event.”

Stinnett was one of four ASU students to travel to Florida for the competition. He was joined by Jim Crowell, Jesse Banks, and Patrick McGarey. All four students are majoring in Earth and Space Exploration with a concentration in Exploration Systems Design. The team roster also includes: David Nelson (Aerospace Engineering), David Darling (Earth and Space Exploration), Michael Anderson (Aerospace Engineering), Jack Lightholder (Aerospace Engineering), Nicholas Lantz (Electrical Engineering), and Pye Pye Zaw (Earth and Space Exploration). Ganesh Kumar, a graduate student, assisted the team, and Professor Srikanth Saripalli served as faculty advisor.

The team’s efforts are the latest in a rapidly growing program in robotics and engineering in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE), which combines science and engineering to produce the next generation of explorers.

“I would not have been able to build this robot without my SESE classes, especially Mark Robinson’s and Paul Scowen’s Exploration Systems Engineering class (SES 405). That completely changed everything we were doing with the design of the robot,” says Crowell. “Without Electronics Instrumentation (SES 330) with Chris Groppi, I wouldn’t have been able to make all the circuits we needed, nor would I have known what a transistor is or what a resistor does.”

The team’s lunabot weighed in at 46.5 kilograms and measured 1.5 meters long (with the arm closed), 0.5 meter wide, and 0.75 meters tall.

In the first round of the competition, the ASU team had complete control of their lunabot, but they were unable to get out of the rut they started in. In round two, the team was unable to establish communication with the lunabot.

"With the limited resources and time that the lunabotics team had, they performed admirably. They gained valuable real-world knowledge that will be useful for the next year's competition," says Saripalli.

“This year was riddled with oversights. We came to the competition with a team of mostly freshmen, with no robotics experience – no one on our team had ever built a robot or competed in a robotics competition – so it was year of growing pains and learning experiences,” says Stinnett.

Next year, the team would like to secure more sponsorship so they are not only able to afford higher-quality materials but so that they can bring more people to Florida.

“Most of our team stayed back in Tempe providing moral support. It’s kind of sad that we’re here with their hard work and they’re not able to be here with us when other teams have 20 or 30 people with them,” says Stinnett.

Budgetary issues were a huge concern for the team. The average budgets for teams in previous years were listed at upwards of $30,000. The ASU team worked within a $5,000 budget.

In lieu of monetary contributions, some local companies in the valley supported the team with donations of materials: Microchip donated microprocessors and development chips; IGUS donated plastic parts to protect wires; and HeatSync Labs in downtown Mesa, a collaborative working environment for scientists and engineers, opened its doors to the students and assisted with questions and problems.

“Being a part of this competition has made me feel much more confident about going into the workforce and has given me an experience that I can expound upon in interviews. You really do need “real” experience, like this competition provided – projects beyond just coursework,” explains Crowell.

ASU’s Lunabotics team is sponsored by its sister organization SEDS (Students for the Exploration and Development of Space), the School of Earth and Space Exploration, and the Autonomous System Technologies Research & Integration Laboratory.

Images are posted on Kennedy’s Media Gallery at: http://mediaarchive.ksc.nasa.gov

Additional images and videos are on the SESE Facebook Fan Page: http://www.facebook.com/SESE.at.ASU

For information about the competition, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/lunabotics

Nikki Cassis, ncassis@asu.edu
602-710-7169
School of Earth and Space Exploration