September 13, 2012Vol. 43, Issue 1

International NASA Competition

Student Engineers Shoot for the Moon

An engineering team from CSU, Chico competed against U.S. and international undergraduate and graduate student teams in the third annual Lunabotics Mining Competition last May. The event was held at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral, Florida. Six members of “Team BEAR” from Chico came back without an award, but they did come back with feelings of pride in their accomplishment and enthusiasm for the experience.

The members of Team BEAR included Ben Bennett and Nalin Randeniya, Mechatronic Engineering; Evan Carroll, Andrew Bolton and Nate Greenberg, Mechanical Engineering; and Ross Bailey, Computer Science.

This was the first year that CSU, Chico engineering students entered the competition. One team member, Ben Bennett, had completed a summer internship with NASA and learned about the competition. He applied both to compete and for a grant for $3,000 to help fund the venture from the NASA Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

Although other CSU, Chico engineering teams had previously created a robot for other competitions, that robot weighed 90 pounds too much, so the team had to start from scratch.

Their work was part of a capstone senior design class that encompassed the entire engineering curriculum they had learned so far. It is a two-semester class project where student teams design, test and build working prototypes for companies that provide external funding.

Ben Bennett, Ross Bailey, Ramesh Varahamurti, advisor, and Evan Carroll hold up the "Team Bear" robot. Photo by Erik Aguilar.

Ben Bennett, Ross Bailey, Ramesh Varahamurti, advisor, and Evan Carroll hold up the "Team Bear" robot. Photo by Erik Aguilar.

“The NASA Lunabotics capstone senior design project had five students from the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronic Engineering and Sustainable Manufacturing and one from the Computer Science Department,” said Professor Ramesh Varahamurti, team advisor. “That made it an interdisciplinary and interdepartmental team project. We met weekly to discuss the progress and chart the next line of action.  What they accomplished is truly impressive.

The project has helped the members find employment in their respective engineering disciplines.” 

“None of us had any previous experience working with robots, let alone building a rover from scratch,” said Evan Carroll, one of the team members. “It was very daunting at first, but because some of our members were so committed, we were able to get it together and make it to completion.”

The NASA lunabotics mining competition is an international competition and open by invitation only. There were teams from Colombia, Mexico, India, Romania, Canada, and the U.S., among others. NASA is able to cultivate new brilliant engineers for the future. “The students in the competition represent some of the brightest new minds about to change the world,” said Carroll. “Imagine the world without cars, iPods, airplanes, electric power, plumbing and refrigeration. Engineers have developed all of these things we take for granted. For Chico to participate in an engineering competition held by the foremost authority in engineering (NASA)—well, that’s something special.

The competition was based on a point system that included the weight of the robot (Chico’s robot was the third lightest at 22 kg), energy consumption, dust mitigation and the ability to shovel dirt. The Chico team went into the shoveling part of the competition with a high score because of the weight of its robot, but it had two malfunctions that put them out of the competition—a loose gear and a damaged front wheel.

In the first heat, the loose gear meant that the robot’s digging mechanism didn’t work after it already had 4 kg of dirt. The team believed it could have shoveled the 10 kg to qualify if it hadn’t malfunctioned. In the second qualifying round, a wheel that had been damaged and repaired during testing was brittle and shattered when it hit a rock.

“Even though we didn’t come back with an award, by going to this competition we have put Chico on the map as a first-rate institution for producing competent and innovative engineers,” said Carroll. “We were up against projects of a whole different magnitude in terms of resources. Some teams had as many as 36 engineering students and more than $40,000 to spend on the project. We built our robot for about $1,500. We had support from the community, with sponsors ranging from Transfer Flow Inc. to A Main Hobbies. We had only six engineers working on the project, but a whole community of supporters.”■

—Kathleen McPartland, Public Affairs and Publications