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Students Dig Sandbox Challenge at NASA Lunabotics Mining Competition
A university team tinkers with its Lunabot

Image: A university team prepares their remote-controlled excavator, called a Lunabot, for competition. Photo credit: NASA/Cory Huston
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Teams for the Lunabotics Mining Competition enter the Lunarena

Image: University students gather for the opening ceremony of NASA's second Lunabotics Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
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A university student drives his Lunabot

Image: A university student practices driving a remote-controlled excavator, called a Lunabot. Photo credit: NASA/Cory Huston
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A remote-controlled robot kicks up dirt in the Lunarena

Image: Inside the Lunarena, university students maneuver their remote-controlled excavators, called Lunabots, in a "sand box" of BP-1. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Grossmann
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Undergraduate and graduate students from more than 30 universities and colleges in the U.S. and five other countries are digging in the dirt in a supersized sandbox filled with a crushed basalt that has similar characteristics as lunar soil, called BP-1, at NASA's second Lunabotics Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex.

The teams arrived May 24 and 24 to set up their remote-controlled Lunabots and put them through communication checks and practice runs to prepare for the official competition, which began May 26, and continues through May 28.

Using computer-controlled commands, the teams are competing against each other to see who can maneuver their Lunabot through the rough terrain, collect and then deposit the most BP-1 within 15 minutes.

During the opening ceremony May 26, Kennedy Engineering Director Pat Simpkins said it was great to see so many teams competing this year, including those from other countries.

"You are paving new frontiers here," Simpkins said. "I'm excited to see what you are doing."

NASA's Education Lead for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate Jerry Hartman said the agency is becoming all about international activities.

"I'm pleased we have international participation in the Lunabotics competition," Hartman said. "Life is too short to do something you don't enjoy. Go forth and do great things."

Rob Mueller is chief of surface systems in the Engineering Directorate and serves as the head judge for the competition. He introduced 13 judges representing various NASA programs, Kennedy directorates and industry.

"Are you ready to dig?" Mueller asked the teams. "To build a robot is not easy."

The only team from a community college in the competition, Oakton Community College's team, from Des Plaines, Ill., is preparing for their turn to compete May 28, with their youngest team member, Owen, 7, cheering them on.

Adjunct Professor and Engineering and Physics Club Advisor George Tootelian said that a colleague at Northwestern University contacted him about a young student who was ready for some challenges. Tootelian said the team welcomed the first-grader on board. Owen helped name the Lunabot, Hope, and offered suggestions on some design aspects of the robotic excavator.

Owen's mother accompanied him to the team's planning meetings where he watched and learned as the senior students built their Lunabot.

According to Hortense Burt, chief of education programs, the event is designed to engage and retain students in the science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, disciplines critical to NASA's mission.

"This is the first time a young student has had a key role with a Lunabotics team," said Hortense Burt, chief of Kennedy's Education Programs. "It is a perfect opportunity to mentor and encourage him and other young students in STEM fields."

Last year's winning team from Montana State University in Bozeman returned this year with eight new senior team members and an all new Lunabot, Mule 2.0.

According to Electrical Engineering Advisor Brock LaMeres, the mining competition is one of the senior design project choices at the university.

"This year's team took everything that worked from last year and built on that," LaMeres said. "It's an incredible event. There are more robots with more functionality this year."

The Prairie View A&M University team from Houston returned to try again after last year's efforts left them unable to compete with a Lunabot that was damaged during delivery.

Dr. Paul Biney, a mechanical engineering professor, along with Technical Specialist Kevin Lee are the team's advisors. He said the team rented a truck and transported the Lunabot themselves this year.

"So far all preliminary checks are looking good," Biney said. "We have high hopes for this year."

Other elements of the competition include systems engineering papers, an outreach project, slide presentation and team spirit.

"These teams have persevered through many difficult challenges to make it to the competition," said Gloria Murphy, lead for ESMD Space Grant and the Lunabotics Mining Competition. "This experience will help the students learn how to solve complex problems when they become engineers."

Linda Herridge
NASA's John F. Kennedy Space Center