By Joe Rojas-Burke
Any attempt to establish a human presence on Mars will require mining for vital resources, most importantly, water, which is frozen beneath the planet’s weathered surface.
That’s part of the reason why NASA holds an annual competition in which teams of college students design and build robots that can crawl over chaotic terrain, excavate simulated Martian soil and carry payloads to a receiving port. Fresh ideas and technical solutions devised by the university teams have the potential to help NASA develop Martian excavation and hauling devices, the space agency says.
The University of Utah fielded its first-ever team this year and took home third place honors in the sixth annual robotic mining competition in May, a weeklong event at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A total of 49 teams competed.
Robots have to be able to withstand operating in a harsh, simulated Martian landscape covered with a dusty, abrasive volcanic grit. Strict rules limit the weight and size of robots, just as they would if designed for interplanetary transport. Scoring takes into account not just the total mass of material robots dig and deliver, but also factors such as dust tolerance, communications effectiveness, energy use and how independently the robot operates.
George Kevin Chapin, a mining engineering major and project manager for the U’s robotic mining team, says careful planning and committing to hard deadlines helped his rookie crew advance into the top ranks. Being on the team meant giving up many Saturdays over the past year to work on the project. “But it was a lot of fun,” Chapin says. “Designing the robot. Building it from the ground up. Seeing it succeed.”
The most valuable take-home, though, was gaining the practical experience and chance to apply and develop real engineering skills, Chapin says. The team had to imagine the range of possible problems, decide which were the most likely to threaten the mission, prioritize them to tackle the most critical issues and, of course, develop solutions or alternatives.
“Seeing potential problems down the road and taking steps to prevent them before they occur – that’s the essence of engineering,” Chapin says. “If you have a problem on Mars, it’s too late to fix it.”
Outreach and sponsorship are a significant part of the competition. During the year, the team visited community schools to educate students about careers in engineering and mining. Local companies contributed to the financial success of the project. Rio Tinto/Kennecott Utah Copper was the primary financial sponsor of the project. Other local sponsors included Wheeler Machinery, BIG-D Construction and the Utah Mining Association.
The U team’s robot moved more material than all but one of the other competitors, but lost points because it required remote direction by a human operator. Only the two top teams, Purdue University and the University of Alabama, fielded robots that navigated the course autonomously.
Come next year, the U team intends to be back in the fray with a fully autonomous robot. But first, Chapin says, “We’re going to take a little break.”
Other team members are assistant project manager Clayton Sanders, software engineer John Robe, mechanical unit manager Aaron Young, system integration manager Teresa Petty, electrical and controls unit manager Jack Petersen, drive train optimization David Denson, Abigail Campbell, Chelsea Gibbs, Derek Jensen, Becca Novy, Matt Sheridan, Artem Simonyan, Max Stocking and faculty advisor Michael Nelson.
Students or faculty interested in participating in next year’s robotic mining team competition can find out more by contacting incoming project manager John Robe at email@example.com.
Joe Rojas-Burke is a senior science writer at University Marketing and Communications. If you have an interesting story idea, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.