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Laurentian students win NASA competition

September 1, 2011
by Norm Tollinsky
In: Skills & Knowledge with 0 Comments

A team of eight mechanical engineering students from Laurentian University in Sudbury took home the top prize in NASA’s second annual Lunabotics Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida May 28th. The eight students designed, built and operated a robotic excavator that collected and dumped 237 kilograms of lunar simulant in 15 minutes.

The nearest competitor, the University of North Dakota, dug up 172 kilograms.

The competition drew 36 teams from universities in the United States, Canada, India, Colombia and Bangladesh. The only other Canadian team, from McGill University, ran into technical difficulties and couldn’t compete.

The Laurentian team entered the competition expecting to do well “because we were consistently loading quite a bit and we had a lot of horsepower in the digger, which we were sure no one else had, but our first practice run at the competition was a complete disaster,” said team spokesman Patrick Chartrand. “We were devastated. It was so dusty, you couldn’t see anything, and we got stuck.”

The excavators, or lunabots, had to conform to weight and size specifications and were operated remotely using video feeds from onboard cameras.

Bucket ladder

Laurentian’s entry “was a complete oddball,” said Chartrand. It scooped up the simulant using a bucket ladder that spilled the material into a hopper with a conveyor belt, or “live bottom.” Once a desired volume of simulant was collected, the unit was driven a short distance to an unloading bin a metre off the ground and dumped from a second telescoping bucket ladder.

The unit featured a unibody design with the hopper also serving as the frame to comply with the competition’s weight restriction of 80 kilograms. Another important design feature was the use of four-wheel steering.

“As soon as your machine is loaded and you try to skid steer, there is a lot of force on the frame and you’re actually bleeding off quite a bit of power just turning, so we used four wheel steering, which is an unbelievable leap forward,” said Chartrand. “It allows us to completely load the robot with a smaller frame and use less power to move it.”

During three days of practice, the team scrambled to modify the unit to take into account some unexpected conditions. The buckets, for example, weren’t holding up to the abuse and getting bent out of shape, while larger than expected chunks of simulant weren’t making it up the unloader. Improvising, the Laurentian engineers descended on the nearest Home Depot to scan the shelves for material they “could work with.” Plastic tie wraps, for example, shored up the buckets and a screen over the hopper prevented the bigger clumps of simulant from coming into contact with the unloader.

The unit, built for $7,000, moved more material than the winning entry in last year’s inaugural competition, which won $500,000, noted Chartrand. The top prize this year was $5,000 and an invitation to a Kennedy Space Center launch.

The Laurentian students, members of the university’s mechanical engineering charter class, took on the challenge when their professor, Dr. Markus Timusk, proposed it as a capstone project. Sudbury-based NORCAT, a research and commercialization centre with years of experience working with NASA and the Canadian Space Agency, pitched in with some cash, as did local supplier Electric Vehicle Controllers, the Professional Engineers of Ontario, Chartrand’s employer, Temisko, a manufacturer of specialized semi-trailers, and his father’s 5th Wheel Training Institute in New Liskeard.

The other members of the team were Samuel Carriere, Stephane Chiasson, Myles Chisholm, Drew Dewit, Greg Lakanen, Jeffrey Pagnutti, and Jean-Sebastien Sonier.

A mix of programming smarts and practical skills made the difference, said Chartrand.

NASA stages the annual competition to encourage the development of innovative lunar excavation concepts which could be used to mine hydrogen, oxygen and other materials from lunar soil on future missions to the moon.


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