The past week has been extremely busy as we hit the road to take our new robot, unofficially dubbed “Moonshot”, across the country from our campus in Rolla, Missouri to NASA’s Robotic Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center on the Florida coast. The competition involved remotely controlling our mining robot to make it collect sandy regolith (mineral dust) from a simulated Martian surface and depositing as much of it as we could in a collection bin. We were among teams from almost 50 other universities which NASA hosts for this competition because of how vital robotic mining is in having resources and rocket fuel for future space exploration. So, early in the morning last Sunday, we finally finished building our robot (excluding work that would have to be done when we arrived), packed up our van, and drove almost 1,200 miles to Florida.
Our competition was fraught with challenges. During the competition, we were forced to build braces to hold together a broken weld on our robot’s frame, build a custom motor control board after we couldn’t use one of our Arduino boards, and switch to and configure a new Wi-Fi router five minutes before competing with an accelerated schedule. In fact, during our first competition run, we found out that our current drive system was inadequate for traversing the Martian regolith simulant, and it prompted us to completely overhaul our robot to use tank tread instead. The redesign involved shopping at local hardware and tractor supply stores, bringing the robot up to our hotel room overnight for two nights to work on it, and testing it at a local beach, but we eventually managed to make it work. Though network connection problems prevented us from showing off how quickly our new design could mine at the competition, we did get our robot to move across the regolith faster than many of our competitors and our proud to have done it almost overnight.
Though we may have had our share of problems this year, we’ve had an amazing experience and learned a lot. We can’t wait to build our next new and improved robot(s) and already have ideas for new improvements and innovations such as a better regolith-collection mechanism, smarter custom motor control boards, torque control, more advanced automation, and even a space-ready cooling system. Robotic Mining Competiton 2016 here we come!
Also, take a look at our competition pictures on Google Drive.