Engineers to take robot to NASA competition - Collegiate Times : Virginia Tech

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Posted: Thursday, April 29, 2010 12:00 am

Virginia Tech engineering students will compete in NASA’s Lunabotics Mining Competition to develop robotic technology that could be used to excavate the moon someday.

The Tech Lunabotics team has been working on developing a robot for this competition since last September, according to senior aerospace engineering student and team leader Vishnu Vinlay.

The team is currently finishing construction of the robot that should be ready for testing by May 10.

When the nearly $7,000, four-wheeled, motor-powered robot is completed, it will weigh 169 pounds, reach a height of 10 feet and be able to carry more than 432 pounds of simulated moon dust.

“Since September, for about three months, we were engaged in the systems engineering process and planned for the spring semester,” Vinlay said. The construction of the robot began in February of this year.

Along with Vinlay, the eight-student team is comprised of seniors Jon Hegg, Sophie Puydupin, Andre Robinson, and Jin Share, who are all aerospace and ocean engineering majors, along with seniors Richard Overstreet, Brent Slaker, and Isaac Witt, who are all mining engineering majors.

Electrical engineers and other aerospace students have volunteered time to the project as well.

“The goal for this competition is to harvest and collect lunar regolith simulant (simulated moon dust) to demonstrate robotic technology that could be applicable on the moon,” one of the project’s faculty advisers, Kevin Shinpaugh, said.

According to Erik Westman, another of the project’s faculty advisers, the robot will feature a unique excavation element.

“The students could have taken the safe route and used a similar excavation method of prior competitions, which would be a variation of the bucket wheel excavator,” Westman said. “Instead, they chose to use a vertical auger.”

The auger is a drill bit-like excavation method that is distinct from the more common rotating bucket wheel method. Using the auger method was a difficult decision.

“One of the major challenges was designing the excavation unit,” Vinlay said. “There have been professional competitions like this, before but none of the designs have used an auger.”

Vinlay believes the auger will be able to excavate 2.6 pounds of simulated moon dust per second. He said the unique design gives the team confidence.  

“We are very confident that we will do well. We think our design is innovative and effective,” Vinlay said.

Moon dust is rich in oxygen and aluminum. These valuable natural resources can be recovered through a chemical process, according to Shinpaugh.

According to NASA’s rules, the competition will place 24 university-designed robots in head to head contests to excavate and collect as much simulated moon dust as possible from a 308-square-foot, sandbox-like field within 15 minutes. The sandbox will include obstacles similar to lunar terrain with craters and rocks.

The team able to excavate the most simulant mass will win $5,000 and VIP invitations to a Kennedy Space Center launch. The competition will be held May 25 through May 28, at the Space Center in Florida.

While winning the competition is the ultimate goal, it was not what initially attracted the team to the project.

“Aerospace engineering students involved in this competition were particularly interested in space robotics. Some of us are thrilled by the idea of sending a rover to the moon. That is what pulled us toward it,” Vinlay said. “The mining engineering students were also interested in using their skills in a space mission. They thought this would be the best platform to try something similar to that.”

The team is continuing to debate a potential name for their robot.

“We are debating between Lunar Gobbler and Augermedes — Augermedes because Archimedes invented the screw mechanics, which the auger uses to pull the (simulant) up,” Vinlay said.

The team is looking forward to completing the robot for May’s contest.

“We are all very excited about the completion. We have worked hard on it for the past seven months,” Vinlay said. “We will have the robot fully functional before the 10th of May and test it rigorously so that we do a good job at KSC.”

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