Sophomores Take on Upper Classes at NASA Lunar Robot Competition

You may never have given much thought to regolith, the layer of powdery substance that covers virtually the entire surface of the moon, much of Mars, and some asteroids—unless, that is, you work for NASA or happen to be an engineering student.

This year a team of NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering students took part in the Fifth Annual NASA Robotic Mining Competition to design and build a robot capable of traversing Martian terrain (known for its chaotic crags, craters, and hills), excavating as much simulated regolith as possible, and depositing it in a collection bin within10 minutes.

While admittedly fun, the contest has a serious purpose: advances in Martian mining have the potential to significantly contribute to our nation’s space-exploration operations.

The NYU School of Engineering team, which dubbed itself “Team Atlas,” is comprised of Eason Smith, an electrical and computer engineering major, who serves as captain; Nicholas Reid, who is majoring in computer science and physics; Kevin Veerasammy, an electrical engineering major; Devon Simmons and Pawel Sawicki, both mechanical engineering majors; Sam Huang, a computer science major; and Elizabeth Syso, who is majoring in mathematics with a computer science minor. Each is a sophomore, making Team Atlas among the youngest groups at the competition, which drew many seniors and graduate students from other universities to NASA’s Florida headquarters.

Under the guidance of Computer Science and Engineering Industry Professor Haldun Hadimioglu, the team built the Atlas4, which at just over 26 kilograms was one of the lightest robots competing. The Atlas4 uses its uniquely designed wheels, each made of several interlocking 3D-printed pieces, to dig into the regolith and deposit the material into a bin in its midsection. Once that bin is full, the robot travels over the rough terrain—designed to convincingly resemble the punishing surfaces of Mars—to the official dumping bin and tips the soil it has collected, via a cleverly designed conveyer belt. The entire process—which team members direct by means of a repurposed Xbox 360 controller—is repeated until the 10 minutes elapses.

Teams are scored on the amount of regolith collected by their robots, which must be not only light but dust resistant, agile, and as autonomous as possible. 

The contest—formerly known as the Lunabotics Mining Competition—is a compelling spectacle: Because the material used to mimic real regolith is an exceptionally fine powder, participants don full hazmat suits and protective respiratory gear before entering the arena and readying their robots.

Team Atlas is already looking forward to NASA’s sixth annual competition. “We are actively seeking to recruit new members, and we want to attract the best, most motivated students at the school,” Smith explains. “We’re proud of what we accomplished this year, and I think we can do even better next year.”