AMES, Iowa – “MARS Atlas,” a high-tech mining robot built by students at Iowa State University that is equipped with lidar sensing technology and the computing power for autonomous operation, is also a bit of a bulldozer.
Is there a stone in the way?
The robot’s lidar system (Light Detection and Ranging, including laser, GPS and navigation units) is supposed to see that rock and steer the robot around it. Until, well, it doesn’t.
That’s what happened during a mining run at the recent Robotic Mining Challenge sponsored by Caterpillar Inc. at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa.
The mission of the competition is for students across the country to learn some science, technology and engineering by designing and building robots that can autonomously navigate a dusty, rocky simulated lunar landscape. Next, the robots must excavate, collect and deliver simulated ice (chunks of gravel) buried about a foot below the surface.
Ice excavation is about enabling long-duration missions on the moon. The lunar ice would be a source of water and oxygen for lunar inhabitants.
So the Iowa State Cardinal Space Mining Club sent its MARS Atlas robot into the mining arena to see how many pounds of ice it could collect. (That name? It’s the last in the club’s MARS robot series – the competition used to simulate mining on Mars – and the Atlas from Greek mythology was strong enough to hold up the sky and an atlas is also a good place to map out a path.)
A team video shows the robot activating its tracks and moving towards the designated mining area. But there was a football-sized stone in the way. Atlas didn’t beat around the bush. Instead, Atlas dug in his tracks and pushed that rock several feet over the sandy, loose soil into the mining area.
But that bug in the obstacle detection system didn’t stop Atlas from running autonomously for most of that mining run. The robot successfully collected and delivered four loads of simulated ice in 15 minutes.
Atlas was so powerful and so independent that it won the mining contest and took second place in the autonomy contest. The club also won the top prize in NASA’s online Lunabotics Challenge, including top spots for its systems engineering paper and its presentation and demonstration.
“This is truly the best year in the club’s history,” said Jim Heise, the club’s longtime faculty advisor and a practicing professor of mechanical engineering. The last time the club won a championship was 10 years ago when the club called itself ‘Team LunaCY’.
The club’s winning formula
Ask about the key to this year’s success, and Nathan Butler, a May Iowa State graduate in mechanical engineering from Riverside in eastern Iowa and a future Oregon State graduate student in robotics, talks more about people and project management than technical upgrades by the systems, controls and mechanical teams.
It really helps that club members come back to the league year after year, said Butler, who has been with the club since his freshman year.
Some teams enter the competition as one-off senior projects. “Students learn, they graduate, and that knowledge gets lost,” Butler said.
It doesn’t work that way around Cardinal Space Mining.
“There is continued support from the team,” he said. “The faculty advisor has been doing this for over ten years. There are big sponsors (Boeing, Caterpillar, Danfoss, Vermeer) that we can count on every year. And this year there were a lot of dedicated members – this was a team that delivered.
Leaders knew team members’ strengths and weaknesses, he said. Leaders can delegate accordingly. And members have put in the time and done the work.
Heise said a key result of that management approach was a robot ready for testing in mid-March. That gave the club weeks to test, review and fine-tune their machine.
Kiah Christopherson, club president and a senior in mechanical engineering from Burnsville, Minnesota, said the secret to the club’s success was really the power of the people.
“The team’s success this year is due to the great group of people who are part of our club and are willing to learn and grow together,” she said. “We have so many talented and dedicated members in this team that made it possible to win both competitions.”
Thanks to the work of all those club members, Heise said, “There’s some serious power in this robot.”