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NE Live@Lunabotics Mining Competition
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NE Live@Lunabotics Mining Competition Transcript

Lunabotics Mining Competition
- Susan Sawyer
- Steve Pemble
- Nate Hicks
- Whitney Tyree
- Christine Gries
- Dave Woods
- Raymond Barsa
- Rob Mueller
- Bill Larson
- Jim Heise
- Ross Keyes
- Amanda Pollock
- Mark Keske
- Courtney Gras
- Amanda Huff
- Joe Kosmo

I love the smell of regolith lunar simulant in the morning. Ok, not really. The simulant is not good for smelling or breathing. However, it is great for competition. And that is exactly what NASA EDGE witnessed first hand at NASA’s 1st Annual Lunabotics Mining Competition at the Astronaut Hall of Fame, Kennedy Space Center, FL. Students from across the country battled through communication issues, mechanical failures, design challenges and the demands of the competition parameters for the opportunity to see their robots in action. The results were varied, but the spirit of the teams was not diminished. Download the vodcast today and find out how they did and who won the coveted Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence (orange D-RATS flight suit not required.)


CHRIS: Coming up on The Best of NE Live

BLAIR: The Lunabotics Mining Competition at The Astronaut Hall of Fame

CHRIS: We’ll get the 411 from Susan Sawyer.

BLAIR: Franklin talks shop with some of the competitors.

BLAIR: It’s actually perfect. It’s very festive, very competitive. We’re witnessing some future potential Hall of Fame astronauts as they cut their teeth on some regolith.

CHRIS: We’re right in the middle of a 2-day event. Yesterday, we had round 1 of the competition. Today is round 2. It’s already heating up.

BLAIR: Already today the competition seems to be a little bit better. Everybody has stepped up their game just a little bit.

CHRIS: I think Franklin is on the floor now. Franklin, what’s going on?

FRANKLIN: Hey guys. I’m here on the factory floor for all the teams and their excavation hardware. Only time is going to tell whose engineering design and hard work is going to pay off to take home the championship of the first annual Lunabotics Mining Competition.

SUSAN: Lunabotics Mining competition, it’s NASA’s first annual competition where we are excavating lunar soil simulant and in a huge Lunarena, we call it. It’s a 25-foot by 24-foot sandbox. We have 22 teams come here to KSC. They have been working around the clock getting their excavators ready for months now. They are here and very excited. We are thrilled to have them here.

BLAIR: You can really see the sense of dejection when that quarantine takes place.


BLAIR: They’d rather stay there all night and work till they couldn’t work any longer.

SUSAN: Absolutely.

CHRIS: I have to say… these students were working really hard. We just saw some B roll working this past week during the practice rounds.

SUSAN: Absolutely.

CHRIS: One of the cool things about this competition is not just the competition today but these teams had to do some public outreach during the year.

SUSAN: They did. That is one of the requirements of the competition because it’s not just about the innovation. It’s not just about the mining. It is about education and they pass on their experience…

CHRIS: Hey, we’re live here.

BLAIR: Someone just threaded the needle.

SUSAN: They had to do outreach in their local community to K-12 students. They could do it informally or in the schools in their community. That was a major category. They have points for that and they also will win a prize for that, the team that did the best job.

BLAIR: That brings up an interesting point. There is the overall competition where there is a single prizewinner for first, second, and third but then these individual categories will get an individual award.

SUSAN: They get a plaque and they get a monetary amount, $500 for the team, and they also get invited to see a launch.

CHRIS: Nice.

BLAIR: Is it actual money or do you get a gift card to Lowe’s.

SUSAN: It’s real money. It’s a check…

BLAIR: Oh, that’s great.

SUSAN: …for each team member.

BLAIR: The big check, like one of those game show checks?

SUSAN: The $5,000 win for the overall Mining Competition is a big check.

CHRIS: We’re also giving a very special award at the end of this competition called the Joe Kosmo Award of Excellence.

SUSAN: Yes, and that is a cumulative award for the entire competition and encompasses all 5 categories of the whole competition.

BLAIR: Is it possible for someone to win the big prize but also sweep all the categories for a hat trick?

SUSAN: It would be possible but it’s improbable.

CHRIS: That would be very challenging.

BLAIR: Plus, I don’t want to put you on the spot because you know some of the winners already.

CHRIS: That’s right. Don’t give it away.

BLAIR: You would never trust me with that kind of information to be sure.

FRANKLIN: Guys, I’m here with Steve from Montana State University. Steve, what is the name of your excavation hardware?

STEVE: It’s the Montana M.U.L.E. MULE stands for Modular Unmanned Lunar Excavator. This was a two-semester project. We designed it in the fall. And this the past semester, for the spring semester, we constructed it. We basically built everything except motors, sprockets, and chains.

FRANKLIN: I see some teams with rubber tires, some that have tracks but you have… what’s that, aluminum?

STEVE: Yes. It provides quite a bit of strength. What we did is we had a hollow shaft. It’s a spindle and the entire wheel turns versus having a traditional style hub.

FRANKLIN: Considering all the rules you had to abide by, what was the toughest one you had to overcome to get your excavator built?

NATE: We had a different design in the first semester. We wanted to use a ramp to drive up and dump into the box. Literally the day after we finished our design, they changed the rules and said ramps weren’t allowed. We had to start over and designed this one from scratch starting in November. That put a lot of load on, at least, the mechanical side because we had to completely change our concept and go with a different idea.

FRANKLIN: Tell us about your excavator.

WHITNEY: Our excavator has planned to lift 500 lbs of regolith. That’s our plan right now. We plan on going two trips. We collect the regolith with a scoop. After it deposits it into our hopper we will travel back to NASA’s collection bin and deposit it with our conveyor.

FRANKLIN: Tell me about the name of your excavator.

CHRISTINE: We decided to go with A.R.T.E.M.I.S., which is the lunar goddess. We thought we should come up with an acronym. It took us a couple of days to figure it out but it’s Amassing Regolith with Topper’s Engineers Employing Innovative Solutions. Amassing regolith, that’s the lunar soil. Topper’s Engineers, we’re the Hill Topper’s at Western Kentucky University, and of course we are Employing Innovative Solutions to come up with our excavator.

FRANKLIN: That’s pretty impressive.

FRANKLIN: What kind of engineering majors and students have worked on this project?

DAVE: We have two electrical engineering students from MSOE. We have six ME students or mechanical engineering. Two of them are from a partner school in Germany that have come over and helped us out on this.

FRANKLIN: That’s pretty interesting. You got some international help.

DAVE: A little bit. Yep.

FRANKLIN: What did you use for your simulant or regolith while you were testing this back in Milwaukee?

DAVE: For all of our big scale purposes, we had concrete. Powder, we tried that for smaller systems. For test-driving we used a volleyball pit that MSOE has in their athletic field.

FRANKLIN: We look at all of this as research. You had a mishap here. What happened?

RAYMOND: Yeah, well, no system works as it is designed when you put it out there. This is our first time in some simulant and we had some problems with the lifting mechanism. When we were out there it came down crooked and one of our parts hit the wheel or the wheel came down on an edge. We weren’t prepared for that. This used to be on that rim there. It’s a very brittle material. We’ve got a pretty bad crack here but we have spares. We have options. We’ll be back tomorrow.


BLAIR: Up next, your questions for Susan.

CHRIS: And we get the regolith simulant scoop with Rob Mueller and Bill Larson.

BLAIR: Would that be a scoop or a bowl?

CHRIS: With extra rice?

BLAIR: Boy, am I hungry.

FRANKLIN: This is a basic question that came in from Twitter. And it’s simply… [Cheering]

FRANKLIN: A lot of excitement. I think one of our teams made it into the hopper.

CHRIS: That’s right. You can see the dust coming from the hopper. Montana State has gotten some regolith simulant in.

BLAIR: It’s interesting too, we’ll see something visually but later when results are verified, you’ll get more applause.

CHRIS: But the key is they have to have at least 10 kilograms, right?

SUSAN: 10 kilograms to win, yes.

CHRIS: Sorry to interrupt, Franklin. Actually Montana interrupted not us.

FRANKLIN: That’s okay.

BLAIR: We thought it might be your fan club too. We weren’t sure.

FRANKLIN: The question simply, what is lunabotics all about?

SUSAN: Lunabotics is a competition for university level students and their faculty to design, build, and compete. Our slogan has been “design it, build it, dig it.” That’s it in a nutshell.

CHRIS: That’s great.

FRANKLIN: Another question we had is how are the university kids picked for the teams?

SUSAN: They just had to form a team. The requirement was two students, and one faculty. All of them are, of course, larger than that but that was the requirement.

CHRIS: What were the expectations going in, in terms of how many universities you think you would of…?

SUSAN: We thought if we got five, it would be great, and then we had 10, then 15, then 20 and 25, and then 29.

CHRIS: For the 2nd annual, you might get 60, 70, 80 schools.

SUSAN: That would be great.

CHRIS: Are you going to be ready for that?

SUSAN: We will expand. Absolutely.

BLAIR: That’s great. Lunarena will be more like the Lunar coliseum.

SUSAN: Right.

ROB: So far, this competition is exactly what we wanted. It’s high energy, a lot of excitement. We have had a lot of failures, a lot of lessons learned. This is not easy. I think everybody is learning that this is a lot harder than it looks. We have a unique situation. We have a light, fluffy powder, which is the worse case scenario for traction. And we have highly compacted, lunar, regolith simulant, which is the worst case for digging. So you have the worse of all conditions. This is extremely challenging and the teams are learning that.

BILL: But this is the way it is on the moon too.

BLAIR: Yes. We actually have a sample here if you can demonstrate what that is. I don’t know if you can get a shot of that. Yeah, there you go.

ROB: This is our lunar regolith aggregate. It simulates the lunar regolith. It’s a very fine powder. You can see it’s gray in color. The reason it’s gray is essentially it is volcanic in nature. If I shake it, it’s extremely powdery and loose. What you’ll see is this is much worse than beach sand. Imagine walking on the beach in the dry loose sand. Imagine running on the beach. You know how hard it is to run on the beach. If you ran on this, you’d sink into it up to your knees.

ROB: The reason we use this is because Harrison Schmitt, Appollo astronaut, happened to be at Desert RATS visiting. We showed it to him and he picked it up and said this looks like lunar regolith. We took a sample back to our lab, did a particle size analysis of it and the particle distribution is very similar to the lunar regolith. That’s why we’re using it here.

BLAIR: That brings up an additional point. You’re using this in a very confined, limited space and I know safety is a concern. How are you handling that? What’s involved there?

ROB: These particles are typically between 20 microns and 100 microns in size. When you get to a level below 20 microns, between 1 micron and 10 microns in particle diameter, the particles are so small that if you breathe them in, they can be imbedded in the alveoli of your lungs. We take great precautions, great measures of industrial health and safety. Analyze this lunar regolith to make sure it’s safe. And we have personal protective equipment; we have the facemasks, the goggles, the bunny suits. We make all the competitors wear those to make sure they’re safe. We’re very concerned about that. You would not want to breath this in. This is also a problem on the moon. If you track this into your lunar module, you could create a housekeeping nightmare. And you could create a health hazard by breathing it in. We’re very aware of that.

CHRIS: Bill, you’re in charge of the ISRU. What’s that stand for?

BILL: In Situ Resource Utilization. The in place resources you find in exploration locations, you’ll want to use them to support your mission. Living off the land, kind of like Lewis and Clark did.

BLAIR: At your office, instead of landscape, do you have lunar regolith sprinkled all around? Do you draw your power from the..?

BILL: No, lots of pictures of it though.

BLAIR: Fair enough.

BILL: This is the first step in any type of space resource utilization. You have the harvest the raw resource, the ore, like they do in mining and stuff like that. Then you go on to process that ore into useable products. In our case, if we work beyond the moon and this really was lunar soil, we would perform a chemical process on it that would extract oxygen, so the astronauts would have oxygen to breath. You have oxygen as part of your propulsion systems. It’s living off the land so we don’t have to launch a rocket that has everything you need in it. You can get it when you get there. That’s a very important part. These students are going to have an opportunity as the exploration vision unfolds to design hardware that will help take us to the moon, Mars, to near-earth asteroids, all these destinations that we would like to explore.

BLAIR: And that’s has to be an added benefit too for all the students because they’re actually contributing data, ideas, and creativity to those kinds of solutions right here in this competition.

BILL: Yeah, thinking outside the box provides great benefit to NASA.

CHRIS: Well, Rob and Bill, we know you’re judges and you need to get back to the competition. We don’t want to take too much of your time. Thank you so much for stopping by.

BLAIR: Thanks a lot.

BILL: All right. Thanks for having us.

FRANKLIN: Your students on your team, school is out. These teams are just… This is their project they’re working on after school.

JIM: That’s correct. A lot of these have put off their start dates for internships, a few of them have graduated so they’ve put off their start date for their new jobs long enough to put the time in to prep and come and compete at this NASA sanctioned event. We have been thrilled to be here. It’s been a wonderful time so far. We are looking forward to getting some sleep when it’s over and looking forward to what we can learn while we’re here.

FRANKLIN: Any design issues you’ve encountered since you started this process?

ROSS: Yeah, many of them. One notable one is we original had a giant collector to chew up dirt on the front of the robot and it was too heavy. We had to take it off. That’s why we’re hoping to use our conveyor belt to also double as a collector.

FRANKLIN: You’re in under the weight, right?

ROSS: Oh yeah. We just weighed it and we’re well under. We’re trimming it off. We’re already 5 kilograms under.

FRANKLIN: I think this is maybe the only wooden hardware that I’ve seen today.

AMANDA: We decided to keep it as simple as possible. It’s the KISS method, Keep It Simple Stupid. We went with a lot of wood because it’s easy to cut; it’s cheap, and lightweight. Our robot weighed in at about 68 kilograms, and the max was 80. It’s easy to produce so we have fewer moving parts than a lot of our robots around here. We’re not hoping to get the most regolith but we’re hoping to at lest get in there and dig some regolith.

FRANKLIN: We have to get at least 10 kilograms, right?

AMANDA: Correct, which is about 22 lbs.

FRANKLIN: Your excavator almost looks like a mini tank. I looked at it and it looks like something that you would find in the military. What is this material.

MARK: It’s technically called a diamond plate. This material is aluminum diamond plate that’s .063 thick. You can buy it at your local Lowe’s hardware store. It’s extremely lightweight and it’s also rather stiff. The bucket is composed of steel, like a frame that we welded together to the teeth and actual sub frame. The rest are the lightweight aluminum components that we needed to save weight. But it is very much like a tank.

FRANKLIN: What kind of experience does this contest give to the teams that are here this week.

ROB: It gives them a good view of the whole Systems Engineering Process, which is a big thing that NASA always pushes for. They always seemed to be centered in a specific discipline, like mechanical engineering, electrical engineering. This, at least, let’s them see how to bring all the project together. It gives them a more hands on, physical, culmination of what they’re education has been. It makes it really great for the whole experience.

FRANKLIN: Tell me how important is teamwork in a project like this.

COURTNEY: Oh my goodness. We’ve learned a lot of teamwork I tell you. Our team is very multi-disciplinary. We have everybody from freshman to graduate students. There is such a vast range of skill sets and different talents. We have some mechanical engineers on our team working with electricals; multi-disciplinary. When you’re working with different skill levels like that, it’s really important to learn how to communicate with each other. I think we’ve learned that a lot over the course.

FRANKLIN: What are you thinking about for a career after you get out of college?

COURTNEY: A career for me? I’m definitely looking at NASA. Right now, I’m pretty sure almost anybody on the team would say the same. For me, that’s always been a dream job. Like I said pretty much all of us will be looking for something like that. Space has always been an interest for me. Reaching for the stars.

FRANKLIN: Courtney, going for Blair’s job as co-host on NASA EDGE. Thanks a lot.

COURTNEY: Thank you.


CHRIS: On deck… Wow, this segment is jammed packed.

BLAIR: But there’s one thing this segment doesn’t have.

CHRIS: What’s that?

BLAIR: Vuvuzelas.

[vuvuzela sounds]

BLAIR: Where did you get that?

CHRIS: What problems did you face? Was it a communication issue with your rover?

CHRISTINE: Day one, we burned out a board. We worked all night last night and some this morning on replacing and getting it reset. We had to get a replacement board but it seems like this morning when we turned it on we had the exact same problem.

CHRIS: Oh, wow.

AMANDA: It’s more of an underlying cause that we haven’t been able to find yet that’s causing this each time we have to replace it.

BLAIR: That is an interesting thing because even though you didn’t get in the pit. You’re still going through the same processes you do when you develop a robot.

AMANDA: Oh yeah. It’s interesting you say that because our thinking was we’re finished the day before we leave. But one thing we learned is that it’s definitely not ever finished.

CHRISTINE: It’s never over.

AMANDA: It’s funny little quirks that show themselves at the most inopportune moments.

AMANDA: A small robot that we were running around and letting the kids push the buttons and drive it around. It was really funny. There was a camera on the front of it just like the ones we’re using here. All they wanted to do was sit in front of it and wave at the camera. Nobody could drive anywhere.

BLAIR: They’re like me. That’s what I do.

CHRIS: Blair likes to see himself in the camera right here.

BLAIR: Sometimes in the middle of the show I’ll just stare.

CHRISTINE: We had to have an item of fun for the Spirit competition. So we decided to bedazzle and sparkle our safety glasses. We made a pair for every team here.

BLAIR: Oh, wow. That’s a cross over of spirit and marketing.


AMANDA: Right.

AMANDA: Everybody needs safety glasses.

BLAIR: That’s true.

AMANDA: I’ll help them out if they forgot a pair.

CHRIS: What is your roll in this competition.

JOE: Work.

CHRIS: Work.

JOE: I’m looking at weighing in the various robots and also doing the dimension measurements to make sure everybody is within the specs and then keeping my eye out for good sportsmanship and enthusiasm. I certainly see a lot of that with all the teams. I’m really impressed. There’s a good group of folks here.

JOE: Most definitely. In fact, that’s key to success. I think these young folks are learning that process. We do testing out our ears to be honest with you, to make sure it works when we go out to the field. You spend a lot of time and money building this hardware. You definitely want to have it succeed. The more testing you can do the better off you’re going to be.

CHRIS: It’s actually, what these students are doing here this past week; you do on a bigger scale.

JOE: Oh yeah. Exactly. It’s a real teaching tool. Even if they don’t succeed a lot of success comes from failures. This gives them an opportunity to see how the real world works. You get away from the academic books, and the computer. To be a good engineer you have to put hands on hardware and build and test a little. That’s kind of the iterative process that we go through.

JOE: You really have to experience failure to understand what success really is. That prepares you for the next venture or endeavor you’re trying to do. Don’t count on success. Count on failure. Be prepared and see how you can work around those problems.

JOE: It’s a humbling experience. I really feel somewhat backward at it. It’s the team of folks that make you look good. You get the right people and the good people that do the hard work and you’re successful but you have failures along the way too. I’m very grateful they thought that highly of me to name an award after me.

BLAIR: That is pretty cool.

CHRIS: I’m actually a little surprised you’re not in your orange jumpsuit today.

JOE: That’s true. I’m kind of out of dress.

JOE: I’m looking forward to having you guys at Desert RATS because you’re an important element of getting the message across. The rest of the world doesn’t know what we’re doing unless you tell them.

CHRIS: That’s true.

JOE: I really appreciate your support.

BLAIR: That’s a great story to tell.

CHRIS: I tell you what, if you want to live up to the Joe Kosmo Award of Excellence you’d better get back to work.

JOE: Yes, sir. I hear you.

BLAIR: We’re here at the Apollo Saturn V Center at NASA Kennedy Space Center anxiously awaiting the results of the Lunabotics Mining Competition. Let’s check it out.

BLAIR: The Lunabotics Mining Competition has officially ended and the award winners have been announced. And I’m very pleased and happy to congratulate the Montana State University team with their M.U.L.E. robot because not only did they win the Lunar Mining Competition, they also won the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence and have a chance to go out to Desert RATS. Even though there were no other teams that actually met the requirement for regolith collection there are some honorable mentions. Team Pumpernickel from Auburn University with 6.6 kilograms; the University of Southern Indiana got 2.4 kilograms; South Dakota School of Mines and Technologies with 2.2 kilograms; and the Milwaukee School of Engineering with 0.8 kilograms; and finally from the University of Akron with 0.6 kilograms. So, we had lots of winners here this evening.

FRANKLIN: Guys, I had a great time. I look forward seeing everyone back here next year for the 2nd installment of the Lunabotics Mining Competition.

BLAIR: You’re watching NASA EDGE


FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look at all things NASA.

CHRIS: Have a great day.

BLAIR: It’s a sing-a-long now.

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