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Digging the Dirt - Unique Robots Compete in Mining Competition
May 29, 2014

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By Linda Herridge
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center

(Update Jan. 5, 2015 -- NASA recently became aware of an error in scoring during the 2014 Robotic Mining Competition. This resulted in the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence Grand Prize being awarded to The University of Alabama, when in fact, the winning title belonged to the West Virginia University. We apologize for this unfortunate error and express deep regret to both teams involved and to all participants. The Robotic Mining Competition team is taking steps to ensure this does not happen again. The error is not the fault of any team; the mistake was a human error made by the RMC team.)

Team "Astrobotics," from the University of Alabama in collaboration with Shelton State Community College, received the top award, the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence, at NASA's Fifth Annual Robotic Mining Competition awards ceremony. The mining competition, coordinated by Kennedy Space Center's Education Office, was held May 19-23 at the Kennedy Visitor Complex in Florida.

“It’s awesome to win,” said Kellen Schroeter, an aerospace engineering student from the University of Alabama. “Each member played an important role in our efforts. In our fifth year of competition, it was definitely a dream team for us this year.”

Joseph Kosmo is a pioneer in extravehicular and space suit hardware, and worked on the Desert Research and Technology Studies (RATS) project to field test prototypes. This year, Kosmo was on hand to serve as one of the on-site mining inspection judges.

The weeklong competition featured teams of undergraduate and graduate students from 36 colleges and universities across the United States, from as far away as Alaska and Hawaii, and as nearby as Melbourne and Orlando. Before traveling to the space coast, each team spent eight months to a year designing and building robots that could mine in a simulated Martian terrain, excavate Martian regolith and deposit it into a collector bin within 10 minutes.

Hortense Diggs, Education Office chief at Kennedy, said the mining competition brings excitement about learning to the center.

"The knowledge that students gain on a robotic mining competition team could never be attained in a classroom setting. And engineers here at Kennedy get excited about the opportunity to see so many different prototypes that one day could be built upon and used as space hardware," Diggs said.

From control rooms near the mining arena, teams commanded their robots to perform the intricate movements to collect the regolith and maneuver through the rocky terrain to deposit it in collection bins.

Because last year's teams were not able to achieve full autonomy with their robots, this year's competition went to a tiered autonomy system, according to Gloria Murphy, Robotic Mining Competition project manager and education specialist at Kennedy.

In the past, it was all or nothing for autonomy, 500 points or zero. Now there are four different point levels for achieving various levels of autonomy.

"We were thrilled that several teams stepped up to the challenge this year, and two of them, Iowa State University and the University of Alabama, were able to complete a competition attempt with full autonomy," Murphy said. "This is a major engineering milestone for the teams and we were ecstatic to be a part of it."

In addition to on-site mining, the competition also included writing a systems engineering paper, performing outreach projects for K-12 students, presenting a slide presentation and demonstration, and sharing team spirit.

In the on-site mining category, the West Virginia University "Mountaineers" team dug their way to the top and received first place for mining and depositing the most simulated Martian soil during two runs in the mining arena, a total of 222.3 kilograms.

"It feels great to win the mining category," said Tim Godisart, a second year graduate student who is pursuing a Master's in electrical engineering. "This is our school's fourth year competing and the atmosphere was great."

Rob Mueller was lead judge for the mining competition and is a NASA senior technologist in the Surface Systems Office in Kennedy’s Engineering and Technology Directorate. Mueller told participants that in-situ resource utilization on other planets, such as Mars, will require the use of robotics.

“We’re technology ambassadors to the world,” Mueller said. “We have a responsibility to be on the leading edge and accomplish great things—to push the borders.”

A team that pushed the borders this year was the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. They won the Judges' Award for Innovation, which is awarded to the team which has the most novel and useful features in the design, fabrication and operation of their regolith mining robot.

"They built a very minimalist but robust machine, at extremely low cost, with a superior user interface and radically improved on last year's robot which tipped over in the final moments of their round," Mueller said.

“We are transitioning the space center to a multi-user spaceport,” said Kelvin Manning, associate director of the center. “NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft will allow us to send astronauts beyond low-Earth orbit.”

Manning said NASA’s ultimate destination is Mars. Science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) studies are essential building blocks that will help us achieve this goal.

This year's mining competition was sponsored by Caterpillar, National Instruments, Harris, Honeybee Robotics, igus, Space Florida, SASRA, Moon Express, American Society of Civil Engineers, Lockheed Martin, The Astronauts Memorial Foundation, Ocean Potion, Delaware North Parks & Resorts, and Secor Strategies LLC.

The complete list of award categories and winners follows.

Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence
University of Alabama in collaboration with Shelton State Community College

On-Site Mining Award
First Place: West Virginia University
Second Place: Florida Institute of Technology
Third Place: University of Alabama

Systems Engineering Paper Award
First Place: University of Alabama in collaboration with Shelton State Community College
Second Place: University of Akron
Third Place: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Slide Presentation and Demonstration Award
First Place: University of Alabama in collaboration with Shelton State Community College
Second Place: West Virginia University
Third Place: Iowa State University, University of Akron, University of North Carolina-Charlotte

Outreach Project Report Award
First Place: West Virginia University
Second Place: Iowa State University
Third Place: University of Akron

Team Spirit Award
First Place: University of Alabama in collaboration with Shelton State Community College
Second Place: University of Akron
Third Place: Iowa State University

Communication Award
University of New Hampshire

Judges' Innovation Award
University of Alaska-Fairbanks

Autonomy Award
First Place: Iowa State University
Second Place: University of Alabama in collaboration with Shelton State Community College
Third Place: Florida Institute of Technology

Pit Pride Award
First Place: University of Akron
Second Place: University of Alabama in collaboration with Shelton State Community College
Third Place: Iowa State University

Social Media Award
University of New Hampshire

The University of Alabama team Astrobotics won the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence.
The University of Alabama team Astrobotics in collaboration with Shelton State Community College received the highest award, the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence, during NASA's 2014 Robotic Mining Competition awards ceremony May 23, 2014 inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
Image Credit: 
NASA/Kim Shiflett
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Team members check their robot May 22 before the start of a mining session.
Team members check their robot May 22 before the start of a mining session in simulated Martian soil in the mining arena during NASA's 2014 Robotic Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
Image Credit: 
NASA/Kim Shiflett
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Students from Oakton Community College in Illinois prepare their robot for the start of mining competition.
Students from Oakton Community College in Illinois prepare their robot for the start of NASA's 2014 Robotic Mining Competition May 19 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
Image Credit: 
NASA/Ben Smegelsky
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A robot dumps its load of simulated Martian soil in a collector bin May 21 at the Robotic Mining Competition.
A robot dumps its load of simulated Martian soil in a collector bin May 21, 2014 in the mining arena during NASA's 2014 Robotic Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.
Image Credit: 
NASA/Kim Shiflett
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West Virginia University team members at the Robotic Mining Competition.
West Virginia University team members gather near the Rocket Garden at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida during NASA's Robotic Mining Competition, held May 19-23, 2014 at the visitor complex. The team received the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence for their efforts in the 2014 competition.
Image Credit: 
NASA
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Page Last Updated: January 5th, 2015
Page Editor: Linda Herridge