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NE Live@Lunabotics Mining Competition 2011
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NE Live@Lunabotics 2011

NASA’s Lunbotics Mining Competition 2011
- Marc Seibert
- Mike Miller
- Rob Mueller
- Multiple Lunabotics Teams
- Tana Utley
- Laurentian University Team

NASA EDGE provides live coverage of the 2nd Annual Lunabotics Mining Competition at the NASA Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. While kilos of lunar regolith simulant are mined in the Lunarena, the NASA EDGE Team breaks down the competition and talks with Head Judge, Rob Mueller. Of course, Caterpillar and enthusiastic engineers also make appearances during the show. And after the lunar “dust” settles, the winners are announced!

[Intro music]


CHRIS: Hey, welcome to NASA EDGE.

JACKY: An inside and outside look...

FRANKLIN: …at all things NASA.

BLAIR: Oh, that’s going to leave a mark.


CHRIS: Our first guest, Rob Mueller, head judge for Lunabotics.

BLAIR: Plus, the NASA EDGE team explains the competition.

FRANKLIN: The 2011 Lunabotics Mining Competition begins right here in the Lunapits. This is the location where all the teams from around the world come, unpack their excavators, pull them out, take them through diagnostic tests to prepare themselves to go into the Lunarena to battle to see who can get the most regolith into the bins. But before they leave the Lunapits, they have to get their excavators weighed and then head over to Communications where Blair is stationed right now to give us more details.

BLAIR: Thanks Franklin. We’re here with the Com Team for the 2nd part of the check out for all the competitors. I understand the Com Checkout is very important part of this process. Mark, could you tell us what happens at a Com Checkout for our competitors?

MARC: What we do is make sure they are configured correctly to go into the tent and not interfere with the other robot while they’re competing

BLAIR: Have things gone well so far? All teams have checked out?

MARC: Yeah, all teams have checked out. A couple hiccups we helped them get through a couple of things but they were ready to go.

BLAIR: Okay, very good. Another part of this is to make sure communication is fair throughout the entire competition. And I understand, Mike, you have a device that checks that out. What exactly is this here?

MIKE: This is a WiFi tester and this allows me to see anything that is transmitting in WiFi and allows me to make sure there is no interference and everyone is doing what they’re suppose to.

BLAIR: What is this not doing? Do you mean cheating or do you mean incidental communication?

MIKE: Incidental. Turned on when they’re not supposed to be and then interfering with the actual competition.

BLAIR: So you’re telling me this device will tell you if someone opens up a wireless network in the vicinity that shouldn’t?

MIKE: Yes. It allows me to hunt them down and find them.

BLAIR: So you’re the guy that’s usually parked somewhere near my house interfering with my WiFi network?

MIKE: Yes, absolutely, in a black van.

BLAIR: Well, that’s uncomfortable but clearly they’re doing their work as the Com Team here. The competitors, when they’re done and checked out with these guys, move to the Lunarena, where Chris will tell us what happens next.

BLAIR: Where are you guys…?

CHRIS: Thanks Blair. We’re here at the Lunarena, the final staging area for the competition. All the teams will come to this point with their excavators. They’re going to suit up. If the students get inside the Lunarena but not in the pit, they have to wear goggles and a mask if they’re going to be in the pit area. They also have to wear gloves and a bunny suit. Safety is of the utmost important in this competition. Once the teams get their excavator inside the Lunarena, they have 10 minutes to check their systems out, make sure everything is ready to go and now their excavators can be placed inside the pit. Then they have 15 minutes to excavate as much lunar simulant as possible. The competition is wild. We have 36 teams competing. We’ll see how they do today.

BLAIR: Great to have you on the show this morning. We have been fielding several rulings questions. We’d love to ask them but tell us, how is the competition going so far.

ROBERT: So far, this is a fantastic event. It’s twice as big as it was last year with 36 teams here. We have Canadians here; Bangladesh, India, Columbia. It’s really been a fantastic event so far.

CHRIS: Take us through the whole judging process. How many judges do you have on your team?

ROBERT: We have 14 judges. They come from all over the country. They are all volunteers but they represent various aerospace companies and various NASA centers. They believe in what we’re doing. They believe in human and robotic exploration of the solar system and we’re very lucky to have them here.

CHRIS: The past couple of days we’ve been spending a lot of time with the teams. We do have some questions on the rulings.

BLAIR: Absolutely.

CHRIS: I think the biggest one that Blair and I have at this point is actually in the Lunarpit. We noticed before they start they place the rovers in different positions. Some are parallel with the hopper. Some are perpendicular with the hopper. Is there a reason for that? Or do they get to choose where they want to position?

ROBERT: We have a rule that talks about random placement of the lunabot at the beginning of the competition. We have dice. They are four-sided dice. We roll them. One roll is for the position. We have four quadrants. The robot could be in one of four quadrants, so the starting position is random. This makes it a little more challenging as the driver. The 2nd roll of the dice is for the direction. So we have a north, south, east, west direction. So, there are two components of the randomness. That is just designed to make it a little bit more unpredictable at the beginning.

CHRIS: Right.

BLAIR: And of course, it is important that the teams know these rules, and so, are obviously prepared if they’re facing a wall and need to back out or things like that. That would be part of what they would need to be prepared for.

ROBERT: Yeah. We have these obstacles, okay? So we have three areas in the Lunarena. One is the mining area. One is the obstacle course. And then, the third one is the area where you start and where you deposit the regolith into the collector. It’s designed to simulate a lunar mission. Obviously we can’t make a huge box that’s miles long but we try to do the best we could in the space we had. So we think we’ll travel about 100 meters on the moon through an obstacle course. Obviously, the moon is random and unpredictable. There are rocks. There are craters. So that’s what we did. We have two craters that are 30 cm. in diameter and we have rocks which are 20 cm. in diameter. With 3 rocks and 2 craters, you have to navigate the obstacle course. The obstacle course does not change from team to team. It’s the same for all teams so we have a level playing field. They have to negotiate that obstacle course as if they were on a traverse on the moon.

BLAIR: Right.

ROBERT: They go to the mining area which we’ll probably have on the moon too because it’s an incredibly dusty place. So you would never want to have your mining area next to your habitat.

CHRIS: Right.

ROBERT: So in that case, you’d be spraying dust all over your habitat.

BLAIR: Especially if you’re Laurentian University which kicked up quite a bit of dust yesterday.

ROBERT: I would like to call that machine the beast.


BLAIR: Very appropriate.

CHRIS: And just a reminder, it was 237.6 kg.


CHRIS: Up next, Franklin talks to the teams in the Lunapits about their excavators.

BLAIR: And I happen to get an interview with engineer and Vice President of Caterpillar, Tana Utley.

CHRIS: Caterpillar actually sponsored the Lunabotics Mining Competition.

BLAIR: Right. Maybe Tana Utley is Vice President first then an engineer.

FRANKLIN: I’m here with Jacob from Embry-Riddle University. He’s going to tell me a little bit about LARE. What does LARE stand for?

JACOB: LARRY is Lunar All-Terrain Regolith Excavator. LAR-E is a four-wheel, independent suspension robot with a bucket drum device on the front.

FRANKLIN: You’ve got a pretty nice paint job. You know I looked at it and said it looks like a frame of a NASCAR. How did you come up with that design?

JACOB: Our school has a jet dragster project where we are outfitting a normal dragster car with a jet engine. We’re learning how to use chromoly tubes, notching, welding, bending. We took all those skills we learned there and applied it to this chaise. Now, we have this robot. It’s modeled after a dun buggy.

FRANKLIN: It looks like you brought the whole engineering department here.

ZACH: Yeah, we’ve got about 15 people with us today. Of the 25 people in our club, 15 were able to come. It’s a pretty good turn out.

FRANKLIN: So this is not a class project? Everybody here volunteered to work on this project?

ZACH: We have two classes. We have a senior design class and then a multiple-disciplinary design class that our advisor, Jim Heise, teaches. We started a club last fall and we’re now up to 25 group members from about 6 when we started. The club and the classes work together. The classes do a lot of the design work and the club does a lot of fabrications. Most of it is all on our own. A lot of the design is done in the class but most of the fabrication is done by the club.

FRANKLIN: Now you know that regolith is very, very fine. What did you use to test your excavator back in Colorado?

THERESA: Cement dust, which is also pretty fine but it’s actually a bit more clumpy than the stuff out here.

FRANKLIN: You haven’t been in the pit yet?

THERESA: No, we have not. We’ll be up next.

FRANKLIN: Nervous?

THERESA: A little bit but we’re excited. We’re all very excited.

FRANKLIN: So, there’s actually 12 people on your team and you two guys are the only ones here, why is that?

BEN: We made sure to get all our bugs worked out before we came here. Right now we’re pretty bored here. That’s a good thing because we don’t have anything going wrong.

FRANKLIN: Have you been in the pit yet?

BEN: Yeah, we’ve been in the pit twice actually.

FRANKLIN: Did you gather any regolith?

BEN: The first time we gathered 154 kg., and the second time we got 148 kg. We’ve been taking it kind of easy and hopefully we can get a little bit more when we go in the pit.

FRANKLIN: At 150 and 148, you guys sound like front-runners.

JOSHUA: From what we’ve heard, no one has really come close so far but it’s still early. Anything can happen. A team could shoot out, out of nowhere or something could go wrong with our machine. We’re going to just take it easy with it right now and hopefully come Thursday, Friday or Saturday it will be ready to go.

FRANKLIN: You guys have a second module here. What’s that all about?

JUSTIN: It’s a percussive digger system. We made our whole system modular so we could swap them out. And in future years, we don’t have to rebuild everything, we just add on to it. This system is something they were describing last year. It actually helps you penetrate the regolith because it’s really dense. It’s basically like a shovel strapped to a jackhammer. That let’s you cut into the dirt and should help us scoop up a lot more that way.

FRANKLIN: So, you’re looking beyond 2011 for the 2012 competition?

MAN: That’s exactly right.

FRANKLIN: Wow. When I first walked in I saw you guys sitting here. Somebody was asleep back there. You were like done. Why aren’t you working like everybody else in the room?

JACOB: We’re definitely going for the tortoise and the hare. We’re the tortoise. We’ve been working on this since September. It’s May now. We’ve been working steadily along the way to make sure everything was in place so that once we get to the competition, we just have to sit here, assemble our robot and be ready to go; no problems.

FRANKLIN: So, right now you’re up, running; comm is working; the excavator is working; you’re just ready to get in the pit?

JACOB: Exactly, we’re ready to go.

FRANKLIN: Hey, we’ll see how it goes. Thanks a lot Jacob.

JACOB: Thank you.

BLAIR: I’m here with Tana Utley with Caterpillar. She’s the Vice President and Chief Technology Officer. I understand we’re at the Lunabotics Mining Competiton and you have been very instrumental in making that happen. How did you get involved in the competition?

TANA: Actually, being involved in the competition is just an outgrowth of our relationship with NASA. We’re doing some joint development with NASA today. We’re working on remote control for our Skid-Steer loaders. In fact, you can see one of our Skid-Steer loaders here. We like to be able to operate that remotely and oddly enough, NASA had the very same interest. They’d like to be able to remote control, except, instead of from one station to a machine, not so far away, they want to do it to some far flung planet.

BLAIR: Yeah, they tend to want to do that.

TANA: Yeah. And they don’t call it dirt. They call it regolith or something like that. Other than that, we have a lot in common I think.

BLAIR: What do you think of the field you’ve seen of the robots here at the competition?

TANA: I think it’s fascinating. I’m a mechanical engineer by nature and training, so I like to look at the different mechanical designs of the robots. You really see a couple different design philosophies. You see some folks that have the sprockets, you know, the bucket kind of style. Others have our MTL. It’s going to be interesting to see which one wins.

BLAIR: There’s an obvious connection here, as you’re looking at these robots and these teams, are you recruiting in anyway?

TANA: We really have a couple of objectives for being here. One of them is working on the CAT brand. We’ve got a wonderful brand and there’s a lot of technology in our products. So, we like being associated with NASA. The students that are going to be the engineers of the future, when they think about the CAT brand, we want them to think of high-tech, and advanced kind of work we do. We need those kind of folks to come to our company. We have some great ones, don’t get me wrong but we’ d like to have even more.

BLAIR: Well, if you’re going to continue to do this for the long-term, you’ve got to think about the next generation.

TANA: You absolutely do. And one of the things that impresses me so much with the young people just coming out of school is how quickly they learn and how they can come right into a corporate environment with those skills they have, especially having been involved in some kind of hands-on program like this, and be able to apple those skills and help us make better Caterpillar machines.

BLAIR: What do you see for the future of competitions like this? Is this something Caterpillar is committed to long-term or what do you see the future benefits of a competition like this?

TANA: First of all, I would like to comment on the value to the students and the continual learning that happens. Last year, I understand we didn’t have many vehicles, actually any that really completed the course successfully. This time the first two vehicles right out of the shoot were successful. Year over year, it’s going to be fun to watch it evolve and see the learning transferred from one generation of students to the next. When Caterpillar gets involved in something like that, we demonstrate our commitment. We’re not a once and gone. I expect we’re going to be back here next year rooting it on. In fact, I was thinking today as I was walking across the yard here and seeing our sponsor tent, one of these days we’re going to have a lot more sponsors out here. But, I’m going to look at the CAT tent and know we were the first tent here.

BLAIR: A prominent footprint by the Caterpillar folks. Thanks so much. Appreciate it. You’re watching NASA EDGE, an inside and outside look at all things NASA. Looking out for the future generation of engineers. Thanks so much.

TANA: You’re welcome. Thank you.


CHRIS: And now, we’d like to highlight NASA EDGE’s very own NASA Caterpillar promo.

BLAIR: I can’t do this. I always get nervous when you bring this up.

CHRIS: Just relax. We’ll roll the promo, hear from more students, Laurentian University and if you recover you can announce the winners.


CHRIS: That’s impressive. You’re operating the MTL remotely?

DAN: That’s correct. That’s what we’re demonstrating today.

CHRIS: What’s up with the yellow box?

DAN: This is a safety E-Stop. I hit this red button everything shuts down quickly.

CHRIS: That’s pretty cool. I’ve got to get me one of those.

BLAIR: Everybody’s at lunch, time for a little experimental joy ride.

CHRIS: What are you talking about?

BLAIR: Turn and burn.

[electronic sound]

CHRIS: Looks like NASA EDGE has a new partner.


BLAIR: I’m not hurt. I just can’t move.

DAN: Yeah, we’re going to have to reboot him.

BLAIR: Does that hurt?

[electronic sound]

CHRIS: So you have already gone, Zach.

ZACH: Yep.

CHRIS: And you had a wheel issue. Can you explain that?

ZACH: Yeah, our track system is inspired by a design we saw at Vermeer Corporation. We designed that last fall in our senior design class. We put it all together and functioning well; tested it on the beach earlier this week. It came down to a little lock tight on a screw. One of our screws backed out and the track system fell apart.

CHRIS: You said you tested it on the beach?

ZACH: Yeah, we tested it on the beach.

CHRIS: You didn’t put it in the water, did you?

ZACH: We wanted to but restrained ourselves from doing that.

CHRIS: Maybe that’s where the wheel issue went.

ZACH: Yeah, that might have been a little seashell or something.

BLAIR: Doing doughnuts on the beach. It’s good.

CHRIS: Shiblee, you’re from Bangladesh.

SHIBLEE: That’s right.

CHRIS: BRAC University?

SHIBLEE: That’s right.

CHRIS: But you haven’t gone yet?

SHIBLEE: Right. We would be going this afternoon, just within an hour or two. We’re very excited. We did have a few issues during the practice. And we hope we have solved this issue.

CHRIS: Nervous?

SHIBLEE: Not really but we’re very excited.

BLAIR: Now Shiblee, you did have a practice session? We’re you able to collect any regolith during your session?

SHIBLEE: During our practice session we could get out of the mining zone and collect but unfortunately I got stuck in the boulders. So, we couldn’t really come back to deposit but the excavation system worked pretty well.

BLAIR: Nice. Are you the driver for the team?

SHIBLEE: I will be with the driver, so sometimes I might be driving and operating some of the components.

BLAIR: How do you decide who drives for the team?

SHIBLEE: For our team, we took the guy who is the expert in the video games.


SHIBLEE: We are using joysticks to control the whole robot. The joystick is connected with the laptop and we can also control it with the laptop. So, simultaneously, two persons could control the robot. The redundancy is for our safety so if something fails we can recover.

CHRIS: Zach, do you have any advice for Shiblee now that you’ve already gone and he hasn’t.

ZACH: I think one of the biggest things that we’ve discussed since our competition attempt was to come back next year with an optimized robot and not a redesigned robot from the ground up.

CHRIS: Right.

ZACH: Just optimizing the systems we currently have and spending a lot of time testing the robot we have next fall.

CHRIS: You actually bring up a good point because you’ve got to make that decision. Do you come back with a completely different design? The tendency is I see a lot of you guys going around the pits and taking pictures of other excavators. You’re probably wondering in your mind, is that one better than mine? Is that the design to go to? That’s a good point about sticking to your design, just optimizing it and coming back strong next year.

BLAIR: And of course, Shiblee, you had some challenges getting materials for your robot. That actually dictated how you designed, correct?

SHIBLEE: That is true. When we were designing, we had to consider what is available near us because a lot of things are not there. We had to think about shipping it here. We had to think about how we were going to dismantle it, and distribute the weight in our luggage so we can bring it in the flight. We did a pretty good job. It’s there and we came on the first day, the 23rd, and we assembled it within two hours.

BLAIR: That’s got to be a pretty amazing, checking a lunabotics mining robot.

CHRIS: So you had a lot of creativity in finding the parts for your excavator.

SHIBLEE: That’s right. When we started the design, we didn’t really know what was available. The most interesting thing is that in our team we have no mechanical engineer students. We are all electrical engineers and just one, me, who is a computer science student. We didn’t really know how to proceed but we made our design. We figured out there was nothing available near us for us to use. So, we redesigned it. This is actually the 7th design that we have. We had a lot of challenges but we figured things out. When we were testing in our country, it worked perfectly.

CHRIS: What would be the biggest thing that you gained from this experience at Lunabotics?

ZACH: Oh boy, I think for all the engineering students, to actually take something from design concept to fabrication and then also get to test it. And not only just test it but test it in the lunar simulant that’s completely different from sand. Getting to see that all the way through the process I think is essential for any engineering student. Unfortunately, not many engineering students get the opportunity to come to a competition like this and be able to do those things.

SHIBLEE: We are working in a physical environment and over here to get the experience you actually need the first hand experience, which we are getting here now. It was really great to learn from all these schools because we see that someone who has a similar design or similar principal that we had in our robot, and they actually excavated the most amount of regolith. So, we are pretty confident that our design is good and we just need to optimize it.

CHRIS: Do you think anyone is going to top 237.6 kg?

ZACH: We were pretty impressed to see that. That’s pretty amazing.

CHRIS: It was a beast, wasn’t it?

ZACH: Yeah.

SHIBLEE: And it’s pretty unpredictable. We never knew in the practice it was going to top 200.

ZACH: Last year, I think there was, what, 22 kg?

CHRIS: I had 22 kg.

ZACH: You go from that to 237, that’s pretty impressive.

SHIBLEE: If the rate is the same, next year, someone’s going to pick up 2 tons.

CHRIS: Yeah.

BLAIR: That’s true.

CHRIS: Absolutely.

FRANKLIN: Guys, how much did you all collect?

JEFF: I believe it was 237 or around there. We were expecting to collect about that amount when we were doing our test runs. We were pretty happy that everything worked out in the end.

FRANKLIN: When you came in, did you know that at the end of the first day you’d be at the top?

JEAN-SEBASTIEN: We were definitely hoping so. We had really good practice runs back at home. So we were coming here to really show off what we could do. We’re really excited that other teams got quite a bit of material as well. It really pushed us to get our robot. We stayed up a couple nights really late just to make sure that we could get our run that we thought we could get. That was definitely a plus.

FRANKLIN: This is what you want to do for your livelihood. How rewarding is it to come out here and get so much regolith?

JEFF: Oh, it’s just great. Every one’s here for the same thing. It’s just a beautiful environment. In the Lunapit when you go around when you take a break, and talk to all these different people, and you’ve all been headed toward the same goal in the end, it’s a really good environment to be in; nice atmosphere.

FRANKLIN: Do you think you’ll be able to remain at the top through tomorrow?

JEAN-SEBASTIEN: I certainly hope so. You know, I want to wish the best of luck to everybody else. You know what, if somebody else does come any where near it, I’ll definitely shake their hand and congratulate them. This is awesome. Every team has been working on this so hard that they all deserve it.

BLAIR: This concludes our exclusive coverage of the 2nd annual Lunabotics Mining Competition. Let’s run through the winners. The Systems Engineering Paper winner, John Brown University. Informal or K12 Education winner, Montana School of Mines. Slide Presentation winner, Embry Riddle, Daytona. Team Spirit Competition winner, University of Alabama, roll tide. The Communications Efficiency Award winner, Laurentian University. The Judges Innovation Award winner, Embry Riddle, Prescott. And of course, the Onsite Mining and Lunarena awards starting with 3rd place winner, West Virginia University; 2nd place winner, University of North Dakota; and of course 1st place winner, Laurentian University. And finally, our favorite award, the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence, the winner, University of North Dakota. Congratulations to all the teams. You did a fantastic job. We look forward to seeing you next year. You’re watching NASA EDGE, an inside and outside look at all things NASA.

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