UCF mining bot could strike gold with NASA
"I've always wanted to go to the moon … but if I can't, I definitely want to send something to space," Thais Lage said.
For the first time as a registered student organization, Lage and members of Lunar Knights are pooling together their passion for space exploration to design a robot that will compete in the NASA Robot Mining Competition held at the Kennedy Space Center in May.
"It's not just a bunch of kids building a robot," Lage said. "There's actually a structure and a plan."
The robot, which members have been designing for six months, will have to mine fine volcanic ash and thick gravel using an auger, or a drill, that spins into the ground and draws in ash and gravel. The material is then collected from the ground, mechanically sifted and disposed into a box surrounding the auger. Team members are required to wear a special suit and mask while near the ash, which can damage lungs with continued exposure.
Lunar Knights president Kelly Lai and Lage, both senior Aerospace engineering majors, are optimistic about the possibility of winning because of their robot's unique structure. Unlike a drill, they said, most mining robot structures use a bucket or conveyor system, while their design functions more like a gum ball machine.
"As engineers, your major is supposed to be innovative, so coming up with new solutions to old problems," Lai said. "We know that a bucket system and that a front-loading system is going to work. Come up with something new, because that's what NASA's going to look for."
At the competition, NASA judges will weigh the material to determine how much was collected by each team. Volcanic ash is worth double the points due to its fine nature. The team that mines the most material will win that category. The winning team will receive a scholarship and have the opportunity to have their design replicated by NASA itself, and travel to Hawaii for an international competition.
Reid Neureuther, a sophomore computer engineering major and Lunar Knights software team leader, said that the team will control the robot with a mini computer planted inside the structure. Through their own Wi-Fi network, a webcam and an Xbox controller, Neureuther said they will be able to communicate with the robot. The software team is in the process of designing a program that will be used to facilitate that communication.
Lai's determination to win the competition stems from her long-time intrigue with space.
"I just like it because there's never an answer. In the universe, it's always expanding and it's always changing," Lai said.
Nada Hassanein is a Digital Producer for the Central Florida Future. Follow her on Twitter at @nhassanein_or email her at NadaH@CentralFloridaFuture.com.