AE Students Compete in NASA Lunabotics Competition

2012-01-23

Several AE students are members of a University of Illinois team competing in the Third Annual Lunabotics Mining Competition that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) hosts.

Caterpillar Inc. is helping to sponsor the team, which will compete at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla., on May 21-26. The Illinois team has been formed from members of the Illinois Robotics in Space (IRIS) organization, which includes students studying aerospace, electrical, computer, and mechanical engineering, as well as computer science, according to IRIS President Jordan Holquist.

The IRIS team includes these AE undergraduates (from left) IRIS President Jordan Holquist; Gregory P. Doidge of Princeton Junction, N.J.; John W. Alaimo Jr. of Lake Forest, Ill.; Steven H. Turner of Naperville, Ill.; and Li X. Pan of Chicago; with their robot 'IRIS-1' in the Kennedy Space Center 'Lunapits.'
The IRIS team includes these AE undergraduates (from left) IRIS President Jordan Holquist; Gregory P. Doidge of Princeton Junction, N.J.; John W. Alaimo Jr. of Lake Forest, Ill.; Steven H. Turner of Naperville, Ill.; and Li X. Pan of Chicago; with their robot 'IRIS-1' in the Kennedy Space Center 'Lunapits.'
 The competition involves building a tele-operated or autonomous lunar excavating robot to collect and deposit a minimum of 10 kilograms of regolith simulant within 10 minutes. Regolith simulant is a terrestrial material synthesized in order to approximate the chemical, mechanical and engineering properties of, and the mineralogy and particle size distributions of lunar surface material. The robot must navigate through an obstacle of craters and rocks, both when the robot is empty and when it is carrying cargo.

This systems engineering project requires the management of schedules, deliverables, interfaces, resource budgets, multiple engineering disciplines, and much more. Each major functional area of the robotic system is split into different subsystems, which various students lead.

Illinois Lunabotics team robot 'IRIS-1.'
Illinois Lunabotics team robot 'IRIS-1.'
 The Illinois students have divided into subsystem teams: Mechanical Systems, Chassis and Structural Systems, Electrical Power Systems, Communication and Sensor Systems, Autonomy and Control Systems, and overall Systems Engineering. Through the competition, the students produce designs on levels ranging from conception to final details, and they experience fabricating, machining, assembling, coding, and testing on the component, subsystem, and full system levels.

The team has completed the conceptual design phase and will be working to complete the preliminary design by the end of February. Holquist expects the 2012 robot to be an improvement over last year’s model because it will use a Microsoft Kinect to aid with autonomous navigation, will have wheels instead of treads for better control and lower mass, and will have digging and dumping mechanisms that utilize conveyor belts and multiple scoop-like buckets.

The Illinois team, co-advised by AE Assistant Prof. Soon-Jo Chung and Prof. Timothy W. Bretl, plans to complete the robot by the end of April to provide time for full-scale testing and optimization tweaking.

The Aerospace Engineering Department, the College of Engineering Design Council, Engineering Council, and the Illinois Space Grant Consortium are funding the project in addition to the support from Caterpillar, Inc.

Last year’s Illinois group, placing 19th out of 36 teams, was a voluntary group competing against mostly curricular-based senior design teams from other universities. This year’s team is aiming higher while remaining a voluntary group, Holquist said.

“With the experience we gained last year, the great team we have put together this year, and all the support that we are receiving, we are aiming to be at the very least among the top five overall teams,” he said. “We are very excited to have the opportunity to participate again and show everyone at the competition what University of Illinois engineering is all about!”