UA Students Design Robot for NASA Contest
By Chven Mitchell
UA students will compete in NASA’s 2011 Lunabotic Mining competition at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida to create a project that could lead to astronauts back to the moon.
The project could “potentially lead to the possibility of stationing people on the moon for extended periods of time or having the moon act as an outpost for missions to further distant planets,” said UA professor Scott Smith.
The idea for the competition is for students to design and construct a Lunabot that can mine and deposit moon soil within 10 minutes, according to NASA’s website. The Lunabot must also be controlled via remote control and comply with specific size and weight limits.
“A project like this is important to NASA because it will allow them to mine materials, for example oxygen, in ‘moon dirt’ and use it in turn as fuel,” Smith said. “This may allow them to produce breathable air and provide an opportunity to erect a colony on the moon.”
Smith will lead a team of six students: electrical engineering undergraduates John Monkus and Ryan May, undergraduate business majors Eric Boumgardner and Nathan Hill and electrical engineering graduate students Brett Sparkman and Chris Farnell.
“Competing against several universities nationwide and internationally will allow the UA to become more well-known,” Smith said.
Fashioned as an electrical engineering senior design project, Smith and his team of students are using the Lunabot prototype to enter NASA’s design competition.
“This type of assignment is very good for the future careers of the students,” Smith said. “It gives them good group collaboration and provides project experience from the conception phase all the way to building a prototype and the testing phase.”
The Lunabot NASA sends might ultimately be a hybrid of design entries, Smith said.
“The plan that NASA has for the competition is to get a flow of ideas,” Monkus stated. “It’s about group concepts on figuring what would be some of the best ways to mine regolith on the moon and mine it autonomously.”
The group’s mission is to make the Lunabot as mechanically simple as possible, Smith said.
“We want to design it in such a way that should any problem arise, it could be fixed easily,” he said.
“I’ve always been interested in robots, as a result of science fiction,” Monkus said. “To have a senior design project on robotics is very interesting and a lot of fun.”
These students do find this project to be entertaining, but also educational.
“This project is great because a lot of the skills that we gain from building this robot translate to the civillian sector,” Farnell said.
Graduate student Brett Sparkman particpated in the event last year and will compete again this year.
“I participated last year as well, and for me it was amazing going through the design process and seeing something start as a pile of metal and evolve into a functioning robot doing exactly what it is supposed to do,” Sparkman said. “Seeing it in action is amazing.”
The students also enjoy the technical aspects of the competition.
“What I’m really excited about is building a small part of the Lunabot’s motor control board to make it highly efficient and provide it with many options to allow it to be easily controllable,” Farnell said.
Another student in the group likes that the competition incorporates different fields in engineering.
“One of the reasons I wanted to join this project is that you’re not exclusively using the concepts of electrical engineering. We are also incorporating aspects of mechanical engineering,” May said.
Business majors Boumgardner and Hill will serve as fund-raisers and finance coordinators for the project’s engineers.
“I really enjoy and relish the challenge,” Boumgardner said.
An increased amount of funding has sparked one student’s interest.
“I came on board because unlike last year, this year the group did not get any funding,” Hill said “I wanted to do my part to ensure that these guys get the chance to build something from a pile of rubble that can eventually walk on the moon. That’s what school is suppose to be about,” Hill said. “It’s suppose to provide you with opportunities to do projects like these, and not having the money in my opinion is wrong.”
Excited by the project’s possibilities Hill went on to say, “we’ve gotten the community on board and the Engineering Department is assisting us in obtaining some more funding.”
With the competition dates posted towards the end of May, Professor Smith hopes to have the Lunabot completed and read for testing by March to allow for extensive testing to achieve the best design.
“If we do well, the University of Arkansas will garner positive commendations,” Smith said.