Island University Students’ Robot Mines “Martian” Dirt at NASA Competition

May 30, 2014

NASA Competition

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – The idea for a better Martian dirt excavating robot may stem from work shown to NASA scientists by Island University students during the 5th annual NASA Robotic Mining Competition last week at the Kennedy Space Flight Center in Cape Canaveral, FL.

“This competition allows us the chance to work with robotics and applying our designs to serve a function for an actual task rather than just simulation,” said Cody Torno, senior mechanical engineering student. “This provides us a chance to see how our designs weigh against competitors from all over the nation.”

The TAMUCC Sandpipers competed against 35 other university teams to design and build a mining robot that can traverse the simulated extraterrestrial terrain, excavate a powdery dirt mixed with rocks, called regolith, and deposit it into a bin within 10 minutes.

A&M-Corpus Christi’s team included four Mechanical Engineering students, Ty Cheatham, Cody Torno, Mathew Salazar and Jessica Linch, and one Computer Science student, Nathan Hinkie, and was led by faculty advisor Dr. Petru A. Simionescu, Assistant Professor for the College of Science and Engineering with support from visiting scholar Dr. Adrian Georgescu. 

The team received positive feedback and commentary from judges for its robot’s unique features and overall ingenious design, said Simionescu.

“We will compete again next year,” he added.

The faux Martian dirt, which is much different than sand used for practicing, and the simulation of lack of an atmosphere make its excavation a difficult technical challenge, the students said. 

In addition to the competition, students were able to visit with NASA employees and see a rocket launch.

“I really enjoyed having the opportunity seeing NASA work,” said Ty Cheatham, junior mechanical engineering student. “They are such a highly revered entity, so it was incredible getting to see how they operate.”

The competition was shown live on NASA EDGE, a video podcast with a sports show feel complete with commentary from judges and others involved. A&M-Corpus Christi competed simultaneously with the University of Akron on Wednesday (seen here starting at minute 41 http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/47852081) and in a second round on Friday (seen here at minute 14) http://www.ustream.tv/recorded/47918292).

The competition encourages clever ideas and solutions to developing innovative excavation concepts that could be applied to future NASA missions. The technology concepts developed by the university teams for this competition conceivably could be used to mine resources on asteroids as well as the Moon or Mars, competition organizers said.  According to NASA sources, a mission to explore an asteroid by 2016 is under development.