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NASA EDGE: Lunabotics 2012
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NASA EDGE: Lunabotics 2012

NASA's Lunabotics Mining Competition
- Lunabotics Teams and Faculty Advisors
- Lunabotic Volunteers
- Lou Balmer-Millar
- Bob Cabana
- Rob Mueller
- Joe Kosmo

CHRIS: This year was the biggest and most successful Lunabotics Mining Competition so far. Fifty-seven teams from around the world competed to see who could mine the most regolith during the two runs in the Lunarena. Although the mining award was the most sought after prize, there were many other awards given out this year. The Ploytechnic Institute of New York University came in third place in the Team Spirit Competition but also won the judges’ Innovation Award and here is why.

BLAIR: Wow, that’s pretty bold. Whoa, oh! Not sure what happened there.

FRANKLIN: Think they’re going to try to push themselves up.

BLAIR: Oh, unbelievable.



FRANKLIN: That’s one of the better recoveries we’ve seen today.

BLAIR: Absolutely, and throughout the competition too. That was pretty impressive. I’m about ready for that thing to stand up and make its way outside the Lunarena.

[Franklin laughing]

BLAIR: For a second I thought it was going to transform, that sound effect. I thought it was going to get up and be a Decepticon.

FRANKLIN: Oh boy, they are going for the gusto.

BLAIR: They are. I really respect what they’re doing here. We’re seeing ten on the scale but that’s unofficial. We’re going to have to wait for the judges’ ruling but good job to Polytechnic Institute of NYU, with a dramatic run. Literally falling down, getting up, walking again, collecting regolith and delivery.

FRANKLIN: You were trying to get a max dump there. What was your strategy?

STUDENT: The strategy was we figured we can’t really win anymore based on the scores, so we figured we want to prove our concept on the vehicle, the fact that it could pick up a lot and we have done it in practice before. Unfortunately, we flipped, I’m pretty sure we had at least 40 to 50 kilos in our drum when we flipped.

FRANKLIN: We saw you actually lift your drum up kind of deep in the arena. What went on there?

STUDENT: I think what happened was the guys were trying to drive and ended up hitting a rock. They tried to power through it and when they finally did get lose they just revved it up and ended up flipping. The second time they flipped was because from the previous flip we used our drum as a counterweight, so you are able to maneuver center mass and bring itself back over but when they drove forward they forgot to lower it. And ended up flipping again, so they had to just do the maneuver again.


CHRIS: Team Robocol from Universidad de los Andes of Columbia won the award for best use of social media, third place in Best Presentation Award, and first place in the most delicious beverage and best looking t-shirt award sponsored by the co-host.

BLAIR: Robocol is the only reason I am webcasting today because of the caffeine pumping through my veins that they have provided. As you can see, I’m decked out in, I don’t know how to describe this shirt, except that it’s a small.

BLAIR: We’re here with Team Robocol and I’ve got tell you, I love you guys. All week, you guys have been giving me coffee and coming by the set and just encouraging me. I feel like I haven’t done a good enough job encouraging you. We love your robot, really proud of what you’ve done. Tell us about how you feel having this experience at Lunabotics 2012.

STUDENT: It didn’t go well but we are happy we are here. We make a great job. We worked hard all year. We want to say thank you to our university and the families, all the people who supported us because that’s why we are here. We now know what the problem is and pretty sure we’re going to be back the next year. We will do a great, great job and we will win this competition.

BLAIR: Is there anything you want to say to your tons of fans back home? Because they’re watching online, all of them.

STUDENT: Thanks to everyone who has supported us. It is an experience. We’ll start to work next Monday for the coming next year.

CHEER: Robocol! Un, dos, tres! Robocol! Un, dos tres! Robocol!

SETH: Hi, I’m Seth Brodinelli from Montana State. This is Montana State’s third year of the competition. The robot behind me is Montana ALE, Autonomous Lunar Excavator, and this is fun.

CHRIS: A big portion of the competition is the system engineering papers that are written by each team prior to competing. This year’s System Engineering Paperwork Award went to Montana State University whose semi-autonomous robot was thrilling to watch.

HUNTER: These students work eight or nine months on this thing. They saw it work perfectly the first run. Now, it’s more for trying to win. Their engineering skills were shown the first time, now we’re going for the win.

BLAIR: Was there ever a point in the process where you guys explored the options of full autonomy?

HUNTER: We worked on the full autonomy from the beginning. That was our plan. We got the digging done. The only thing we couldn’t get was we just never got it to dump successfully. We’d miss the bin or there were jus items that happened. Then we’d run out of time but we got close. I really think next year, depending on the rules, depending on things, I think we can get fully autonomy.

BLAIR: We did have some questions from our audience about autonomy. They wanted to know how you would stop the robot at the end of the competition. Would it work on a timer?

HUNTER: We have an X-Box controller and when we hit the button on the X-Box controller it goes into autonomous mode. When we want to take it out, we can just hit the button again and have full control of it. We do that now in semi-autonomous. We get it lined up where we need to go, where we want it to go. We hit the button and it goes through the minefield, what I call the minefield. It goes through the obstacle course semi-autonomously. When it crosses that line and we see the person inside the pit drop his arm then we hit the button again and take it out. There is a delay in there. When you’re in the control room, when the guy drops his arm, it’s about two seconds before you see it in the control room.

BLAIR: Interesting.

HUNTER: There is a slight delay. It might not be quite two seconds but it’s a slight delay. You have to kind of predict to be able to stop your robot in time before you take a wall or something.

FRANKLIN: What was the ruling yesterday as far as getting across the second orange line? Does the entire rover have to be pass that mark to start digging?

BLAIR: Those lines are used for different purposes. When they evaluate semi-autonomous use of the robot that area between the orange lines is where they must be operating semi-autonomously. In that case, you can control the robot once they’re beyond the orange line on either side. However, as far as excavation is concerned, if you’re not dealing with autonomy, all you need to do is make sure you are digging on the other side of the line. The whole robot does not necessarily have to pass but all excavation has to be done across the orange line.

CHRIS: John Brown University was the early front-runner in the mining competition. Although they did not place, they did come in third for their out-reach project and second for the systems engineering paper.

BLAIR: They’re spending an awful lot of time in the collection area. I know that is a strategy but you more than doubled your first round’s performance.

WILL: Our whole system design was for a few numbers of trips across. Our bin holds right around; well, it holds 77 kilograms. We were topping it out. I think even more than having a number, it performed the way they wanted it to. You start off in August and you say this is what we want to do. You come here and you do it. That’s the reward in and of itself.

BLAIR: You can hear the reward.

FRANKLIN: I was looking at your excavator here. You have a couple of battle scars here. What happened?

STUDENT: We just dug in pretty good there. I’m not sure exactly what happened but I just heard Travis start laughing. I told him it’s okay. You’ve got eleven more of those things on there. You’re not going to have any problems. Hit one more and said no problem, we’ve got ten more.

FRANKLIN: How important is it to be autonomous, using semi-autonomy during your run?

STUDENT: In this competition, pretty important. It was 250 points, so, with the mass of our robot we really needed those semi-autonomy points to bring our score back up there.

FRANKLIN: Have you heard what your score is for this round?

STUDENT: No, no, not our final score.

FRANKLIN: Your final score for this second round, 994.


FRANKLIN: Yes, yes, yes, yes. 994, how does that make you feel?

STUDENT: So good, so good. It did what it came here to do and so did we. We’re very, very pleased with that.

CHRIS: Not all schools were as fortunate as John Brown. Many schools didn’t even get their robots moving. Unfortunately, communication issues were the biggest set back for many of these teams, including the University of Illinois, who came in third place in their systems engineering paper.


FRANKLIN: Jordan, second run.

JORDAN: Second run.

FRANKLIN: What went wrong?

JORDAN: It looks like we had some connectivity issues again. When we actually set it up the first time, we powered it up in the sandbox. We got connected just fine. We wanted to do a restart just in case. When we restarted, we couldn’t get connected when the actual round started. We got connected in about the last minute, minute and a half. We actually got to roll a little bit forward but then it looks like we were having some issues with the torque on our motors. We were tinkering with those settings before we got in there and just didn’t have enough time to get it calibrated correctly.

FRANKLIN: It’s tough to come this far and not be able to collect any regolith and place. Is your school looking forward to coming back next year?

JORDAN: We’ll be back. This is our second year here. Last year actually, we didn’t even get on regolith, so this year we’re moving a step forward. We got on regolith and we made one small inch. Next year we’re going to take a leap.

BLAIR: Before I pass out here, what actually am I wearing and what is its purpose?

NICHOLAS: You’re wearing a directional antenna that we’ve been using to find teams in pits that are on that shouldn’t be. Because the teams in the arena use channel 1 or channel 11.

BLAIR: Okay.

NICHOLAS: And we need to make sure that they are the only teams on those channels. Otherwise, there can be interference.

BLAIR: I’m seeing our network on here. We’re obviously not causing any problems.

NICHOLAS: No. No, there are certain networks that are approved to be on those channels but will not interfere with the teams.

BLAIR: Gotcha.

NICHOLAS: It’s just other teams that are in the pits that cause the problems.

BLAIR: Now, I have a question about this. Do you use this at home to pick up Direct TV?


NICHOLAS: No, no, not quite.

CHRIS: The teams from Columbia this year were the most impressive to watch outside of the arena. This year the second place position for team spirit went to NASA EDGE’s favorite mascot.

STUDENT: Hello, we came from Columbia. We are the best team that is here in this competition. We are twenty-two and we worked really hard with our robot.


CHRIS: Look at that! Hey!

BLAIR: Hey, it’s Bender?, that’s their mascot. That’s cool.

CHRIS: Why isn’t the mascot in the control room operating the rover?

BLAIR: Because they want to win.

STUDENT: We’re the Regolith Raiders from the Milwaukee School of Engineering. This is our second year as a school competing here and the first year for all of us.

CHRIS: The teams are allowed to attempt two runs in the Lunareana. The final scores for the mining prize were based on an average of the two runs. Milwaukee School of Engineering was one of the few teams to collect 10 kilograms of regolith during both rounds and ended up coming in third place in the mining competition.

CHRIS: Just behind us we have the team form Milwaukee School of Engineering giving their signs and saying hello to the camera.

BLAIR: We call that mugging the camera.

CHRIS: Yes. You guys are one of the few teams that actually did well in the first round.


CHRIS: What are you looking forward to in the second round?

STUDENT B: A repeat. We’re trying to do just the same thing.

STUDENT A:: Be consistent.

STUDENT B: Yeah, consistency is our number one.

STUDENT A:: We wanted to make sure we filled up the buckets as much as possible because when we did our runs before we didn’t have them filled to full capacity every run. So, we’re going to try and improve on that.

CHRIS: Would you make sure you have a steady run for the second round or would you go all out?

BLAIR: I don’t know if you can see the screens, Chris, but it looks like they’re going all out. I don’t think there’s any doubt. Both teams are very aggressive with their approach.

CHRIS: Do you know what Milwaukee School of Engineering is saying right now?

BLAIR: What’s that?

CHRIS: Game on.

BLAIR: Yes, they are.

CHRIS: That’s what they’re saying. They’re saying, game on.

FRANKLIN: You guys had a strategy. What was that strategy? I know what it looked like to me but I want to hear you tell me what it is.

STUDENTS:: Our goal was to just go fast, collect as much as we could, and then get back, and bump and dump, and go and do it again.

FRANKLIN: You like bumped the bin and dumped?

STUDENT: Yep. Bump it and dump it.

FRANKLIN: Bump and dump it. That is exactly what it looked like. You guys winning, you dug, you turned around. It was like running back and forth. It was like putting out a fire. You were getting water, dumping; getting water, dumping.

STUDENT: Yep, the goal was to be able to handle it in two runs but obviously we got way more than that in.

CHRIS: The grand prize for the Lunabotics Mining Competition is the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence, which takes into account all aspects of the competition. West Virginia’s robot was a beast. It came to collect lunar simulant and did very well earning the third place spot for the grand prize.

CHRIS: What are you going to do in the second round that was different than the first round?

STUDENT: We have a little bit of a different strategy going into the mining. We planned on going in in an L-shape and mining from left to right instead of front to back. That way we break up the regolith as we’re moving forward and backwards and then we mine up that regolith. It makes it a little bit softer to mine. We’re also going to try our semi autonomy and try to get a few more point in that area.

CHRIS: In terms of regolith points, you blew away the field in the first round. The mass of your excavator is pretty high. Are you looking to maybe double the amount of points you get for the regolith?

STUDENT: Yes. We do come from West Virginia University. We have a tradition, a legacy that we uphold there. As you know, West Virginia is a mining state and we came to mine. That’s what we’re going to do. Our goal is 200 kilograms.

FRANKLIN: I was sitting there looking into the Lunarena and I was rooting you on because I knew you were going to get out of that area you were stuck and get away to the bins. What happened?

STUDENT: We lost our back left and front right wheel so we only had the ones that were diagonal. If we don’t have all four pulling, it’s pretty difficult to get this thing moving.

FRANKLIN: You were loading up. Was that your plan? Just fill up and go ahead and make one dump?

STUDENT: Yes, sir. The competition this year really pushed teams to do a lot of design tradeoff. We sat around and found a way to build a light bot. We found a way to build an autonomous bot. We found a way to build a miner. At the end of that meeting we said what do you guys want to do? Everyone agreed we want to pull the most dirt up out of the ground.

CHRIS: One of our returning favorites, Iowa State University, took away four prizes this year. They won first place in On Site Mining; first place in Efficient Use of Communications Power; first place in the Outreach Project Report; second place in the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence.

FRANKLIN: Let me ask you something.

BLAIR: Sure.

FRANKLIN: If you were in Jim’s shoes, the company advisor working with this team, would you play it safe and go for 10 kilograms and not try to overload your excavator and at least get 10 in the hopper?

BLAIR: If I were in Jim’s place right now I’d be in the fetal position on the ground, weeping and sobbing hysterically. It’s a lot of pressure.

JIM: I want to just say to all the teams out there competing, my heart goes out to all of them because we’ve been there, as you well know. To work so hard, then come away empty handed, I would tell all of them, take what you’ve learned here. Go back. Don’t throw away your design just yet. I know a lot of teams talking about giving up on tracks and going on wheels. Our first year with the tracks, our first run, we didn’t get ten feet and we were dead. You’re seeing what we’re doing here now with the maneuverability. I know the track systems yet still aren’t probably the way to go into space but one of our missions, so to speak, is to take whatever system we work with and keep develop it. Oh, they are capable. So, they can work. One of my most inspiring things I like to listen to is John F. Kennedy’s speech on going to the moon. He said we do these things not because they’re easy; we do them because they’re hard. We learn best by that. My encouragement to everybody is go out there, understand the requirements, do your testing, simulate the situations as best you can, do the analysis, then build and test, build and test, and develop. That’s what NASA does. You guys are great at it.

BLAIR: I’m going to take just a few moments just to say I did pick you guys to win.

JIM: Hey, you did all right!

BLAIR: So, finally the co-host jinx, it’s over.

JIM: You’re good!

BLAIR: I finally picked a winner.

JIM: You’ve got a good record. We’re going to start right here. Blair Allen’s prognostication record is perfect, starting from this year going forward. Right?

BLAIR: I’m immediately retiring from prognosticating.


CHRIS: Our grand prize winner this year was the University of Alabama, who walked away with the golden Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence. The Crimson Tide also won first place in the Slide Presentation Contest, first place in the Team Spirit Award, and second place in the On Site Mining Competition.

ROB: This team has a modular approach. So their mobility platform is the same, then they have two modules they can put on top. One module was heavier with a bucket wheel system, and the other module was lighter. Originally they wanted to do on module in one round, and the second module in the second round. But, we informed them they had to make a decision. They’ve made the decision to go with the lighter version, which is a frontend loader type of design. It’s going to be interesting. You can see that mass gives you extra points but it also gives you less reaction force. It’s a problem digging when you’re very light.

CHRIS: When we’re watching the run, it looked like it took a little bit of time on that first scoop to get to the hopper but then, the second two were pretty quick.

KENNY: We have an onboard way of figuring out whether we’re near 10 kilograms. Our wheels sweep around the edge of the robot from 0° to 90°. When we fill up the bucket, we can put our wheels in a very particular position. And if our robot tilts forward, that’s right at 10 kilograms.

BLAIR: We saw that.

KENNY: All that’s part of our operational plan. We measure it. We see that it tips forward and then we’re ready to go dump. We’re interested in one 14 to 16 kilogram load.

FRANKLIN: Blair and I were watching your run. You made your dump, you turned around and then you stopped. Blair was looking like, I don’t know, what are they doing? I said to Blair I think they were trying to save their autonomy.

STUDENT: Yes, that’s exactly what we did. We attempted to do that on our first run as well. Our deal was to come across with semiautonomous, get over 10 kilograms; come back semiautonomous and that would place us very high in the scores. It’s not worth the second run to come back and get an additional amount of regolith because the points just wouldn’t be worth risking losing the semiautonomous points. Unfortunately, on the first run, we dumped some out when we hit a crater. We had to actually make up for that and ended up losing semiautonomous points. But this time we were able to get them successfully.

BLAIR: Is there some sort of super secret Caterpillar interoffice memo that suggests thata you go and find new employees from this crowd? Are you doing some real recruiting work here at the competition?

LOU: It’s not super secret. We are here to look for that next generation of talent. This is just a great international crowd here today. Caterpillar is global. So, a lot of folks with experience already in automation, and remote control, which is really what we’re looking for. So, we do have recruiters here today in the CAT tent.

CHRIS: Just how important is it, from your company, autonomy in robotic technology?

LOU: It is very important to us, because our mining equipment, for example, operates in harsh and remote environments. Our customers need to be successful in those environments. So, having something that is autonomous can help the miners be more safe. It can improve the efficiency of the mine. Automation is very key and it’s part of our strategy moving forward.

BLAIR: When you’re walking around and checking out these teams and obviously being impressed with what their doing, do you ever want to jump in there and get your hands dirty? Do you have to resist that temptation?

LOU: Yeah, there were a couple of times in the Luna Pit where I did want to jump in there. It’s so interesting. You want to just tinker.

BLAIR: It’s funny.

CHRIS: Did you bring a tool belt with you?

LOU: No, I wasn’t allowed to bring it. I had to leave it at home.

CHRIS: Did you have opportunities like this?

BOB: Oh no. Things have changed a lot. There is so many more opportunity today for students to do unique and different things, and compete and learn. People ask me, you talk about our school system. They talk about the test scores and all that stuff and worry about the future of America. If you come down and talk to any of these students, I’m not worried about our future at all. We’ve got some of the best and the brightest. Kids today, they’re are excited about space. They’re excited about doing technical, challenging things.

BLAIR: When we’ve seen students encounter difficulties, or obstacles or challenges, we talked to them right after they’ve gone and the first thing they’re doing is problem solving.

BOB: Absolutely.

BLAIR: Here’s what we need to do to change. Here’s how we can overcome this. That I always find encouraging.

BOB: A failure is just an opportunity to learn.


BOB: Things go wrong. Well, you learn from it and you correct it and move on. The true measure of a person is not the mistakes he makes or the failures that he’s had but how you recover after that and what you go on to do.

JOE: I’m also looking forward to the drag race. That ought to be a blast.

BLAIR: We’ve heard that’s a rumor. If that happens, we hope to get some of that on camera. We don’t know but we’ll certainly try.

JOE: There are twenty teams that I saw that were signed up in there, so hopefully. They seem to be enthusiastic about that as well but that’s kind of a corollary to the actual activities but it shows they are still actively interested and have a lot of enthusiasm. There’s a lot of team spirit. That’s the important thing too.

LORKIEWICZ:: Oh, they jumped.


BLAIR: We noticed the little violation in the competition. Not Wall-E, that’s fine. Look behind there. Someone put a notebook on a cart and thinks that qualifies as a lunabot. I don’t think the rules account for that. Would that fly in the Lunarena?

ROB: I think that was probably a business major.

[Blair laughing]

BLAIR: Seriously, great to have you, great competition. It’s just been a fantastic week. Thanks so much for having us. We loved working with you and the whole Lunabotics team. Hopefully, we’ll come back next year and we’ll see a great field of competitors and a lot more regolith being mined.

ROB: All week long I’ve been saying the prime directive is we want the students to have a good experience. And that’s really been our guiding principle for the whole competition. We want the students to really have a good experience and decide that maybe this STEM stuff, maybe this engineering, there’s something to it. We enjoy it. Maybe this is what I want to do for the rest of my life.

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