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 Tandon 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 within 10 minutes.
While 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,” was comprised of Eason Smith, an electrical and computer engineering major, who served 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 was 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 used its unique 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 was full, the robot traveled over the rough terrain—designed to resemble the punishing surfaces of Mars—to the official dumping bin and tipped the soil it had collected, via a conveyer belt. The entire process—which team members directed by means of a repurposed Xbox 360 controller—was repeated until the 10 minutes had elapsed.
Teams were scored on the amount of regolith collected by their robots, which were required to be not only light but dust resistant, agile, and as autonomous as possible.
The contest—formerly known as the Lunabotics Mining Competition—is always 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 now 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 explained, adding that donations from several dedicated alumni had made the Atlas4 possible. “We’re proud of what we accomplished this past year, and I think we can do even better next year.”