NYU Tandon Fields a Top-Ten Team in NASA Robotic Mining Competition
NASA’s annual Robotic Mining Competition is always a hotly anticipated event, with dozens of teams from colleges across the country gathered at the Kennedy Space Center to see who will land at the top of the heap.
That would be, quite literally, a heap of simulated regolith, the powdery “dirt” that covers the surface of Mars. The contest requires each student team to design and build a fully autonomous robot capable of mining raw materials from the surface of the planet (taking into account factors like dust tolerance and energy usage), don full hazmat suits and protective respiratory gear, send their robots across an artificial – but realistically craggy – Martian terrain to excavate as much regolith as possible, and return it to a collection bin in an efficient and speedy manner.
While fun, the exercise has serious implications: In order to sustain human life on Mars and enable a return trip back to Earth, NASA is researching In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). If robotic excavators can be developed to extract raw resources like regolith, they can then be converted into water, fuel, building media, and other useful materials. The unique physical properties of regolith, reduced gravity, and other factors make such excavation a difficult technical challenge, NASA officials explain, and advances in Martian mining have the potential to significantly contribute to our nation’s space vision and space exploration operations.
At the 2018 event, a multidisciplinary Tandon group — led by team captain and graduating senior Orion Doscher along with rising captain Theodore Kim, advised by Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Haldun Hadimioglu, and comprised of students from a wide variety of majors — coasted to a sixth-place finish in the crowded field, thanks in great part to the efficiency and power of the large, central digging wheel they had incorporated. Another important factor, as Kim pointed out, was their sponsorship by the Tandon MakerSpace, which gave them access to an array of tools and 3D-printed parts as well as valuable advice. “Because of that, our finished product looked and performed at a professional level,” he said.
While coming up with a competition-worthy robotic vehicle might seem like a full-time task, members of the Tandon team also spent a collective 2,700 hours during the semester to mentor younger aspiring engineers. They’ve shared their excitement about STEM and robotics with both a local Girl Scout troop (that gratifyingly placed first at a regional robotics competition under their tutelage) and a school for children with special needs. Kim attributed the team’s solid showing, in some part, to that community service; a portion of the final score is based on educational outreach efforts.
Although the 2018 event just ended, the team is already excited about participating in 2019, which marks the tenth anniversary of the mining competition and the 50th anniversary of the Apollo moon landing. Plans are in the works to design and build an autonomous two-robot system that can work in tandem for added efficiency, and hopes are high that another top-ten finish will be possible, particularly since the top ten teams will be invited to meet iconic astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
2018 NYU Tandon Robotic Team
- Sayed Ananda - Mechanical Lead
- Sho Asuka
- Marcus Barbu
- Charles Chan
- Kai Chen
- Orion Doscher - Team Captain
- Shiva Duraisamy
- Muhammad Fahad
- Jion Fairchild
- Allie Karakosta
- Theodore Kim - Electrical Lead
- Brandon LeMay
- Kiersten Page
- Yansong Peng
- Omar Salem
- Parth Shah
- Ziyao Shangguan
- Tara Umesh - Embedded Systems Lead
- Chaoyue Wang - Control Systems Lead
- Zhiyu Wen
- Jing Xia