More than 45 teams competed in the Sixth Annual NASA Robotic Mining Competition last week at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The competition pitted student teams against each other, with each designing a robot intended to cross simulated Martian terrain, excavate a rocky material known as regolith and deposit it into a bin, in less than 10 minutes.
“There is particular relevance to NASA’s mission of pioneering a human presence on Mars through resource mining and utilization. A critical resource on Mars is water ice which can be found buried in the regolith where it is well insulated. The technology concepts developed by the university teams for this competition conceivably could be used to robotically mine regolith resources on Mars,” reads NASA’s Website for the competition.
Teams had to consider a number of factors when designing their bots, including dust tolerance and dust projection, communications, vehicle mass, energy/power required, and autonomy.
John Brown University‘s Eaglenaut Robotics team created an interesting multi-robot entry, inspired by grain harvesting equipment. One robot dug up the regolith using a series of scoops mounted on a rotating wheel. The dirt was then dumped onto a transfer robot that hauled it away to the collection bin. The transfer robots could raise and lower the dirt so that it could be transferred to the collection bin. Using two transfer robots was intended to improve efficiency: while one transfer robot poured dirt into the collection bin, the other could be loaded up. In practice, having two transfer bots provided a useful backup system. When the drive train on one transfer robot broke during the competition, the other continued collecting and dumping dirt.
The JBU team envisions a network of robots working together. “Really, this project is intended to prove that a family of these robots is a good idea. We don’t think three is the right number,” says Eaglenaut Robotics teammate David Bird, a JBU student who just completed a bachelors degree in electrical and computer engineer. “We wanted to prove the basic concept and show how well this could work in the future.”
Teammate Brian Plank, who just completed the same degree as Bird, said the Eaglenaut’s are thrilled to win the contest’s Innovation Award. “Of the 46 teams, we represent the smallest university and were the smallest design team,” Plank says. “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how big the team is. It’s how well you work together and how creative your design space is.”