Fifteen University of Akron engineering students will compete next week in NASA’s fourth annual Lunabotics Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center.
The students’ robot — called a lunabot — will excavate simulated lunar dust and dump it in a bin in a set amount of time.
UA is among 50 universities from around the world that will compete in the challenge.
“We’ve had robots that look worse than this,” said UA team captain Ben Chaffee, a mechanical engineering major from Macedonia, as the students on Friday hastened to make last-minute improvements on their machine.
The UA undergraduates in mechanical, electrical and computer engineering spent the past year developing STACEE, which stands for systematic, technical, automation, collecting, extraterrestrial and elements. They chose a female name for the fairest of reasons: They had selected a male name for last year’s entrant.
The 100-pound robot is an improvement of their entries from the previous three years. The $9,000 machine, funded by state and university money, is composed of extruded aluminum and acrylic on a bulldozer-like tread.
To increase reliability, it uses only three moving parts, Chaffee said: “Less moving parts means a lower chance of failure.”
The lunabot is dust-tolerant, said team adviser Tom Hartley, a professor of electrical and computer engineering. That is essential because the dust on the surface of the moon, where robots like this could be used, can clog moving parts.
The UA lunabot also features built-in infrared light sensors that help it to detect and avoid obstacles, such as rocks and craters — a benefit Chaffee believes will give UA a competitive edge. In the actual competition, robots must maneuver around two craters and three rocks.
Depending on how last-minute adjustments go, UA might choose to operate its robot by remote control or autonomously.
The goal of the NASA competition is to encourage students to study the STEM disciplines — science, technology, engineering and math — and to possibly generate new ideas NASA can use in space exploration, Hartley said.
UA will compete in up to five categories against two other Ohio universities: Case Western Reserve and Miami. The top award is a $5,000 team scholarship that would be split among the students on the winning project.
Previous winners of the competition were the University of Alabama, the University of North Dakota and Montana State University.