NASA Edge | Robotics: Regolith Mining Competition
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ANNOUNCER: The regolith mining competition. NASA’s 4th annual event, challenging college students from around the world to design and build a robot, then navigate their way to success. This contest may require a little more than just the force to become victorious. Which teams have the right stuff? Find out next on NASA EDGE.
BLAIR: This year’s Regolith Mining Competition was awesome.
CHRIS: Yeah, we had 50 teams, 32 US, 18 international.
FRANKLIN: The international teams that came to the competition overcame quite a few obstacles getting here to Florida but they got into the competition and we saw some pretty good runs.
BLAIR: We’re not going to cover all 50 teams but we are going to take a look at a few NASA EDGE highlights from this year’s competition.
FRANKLIN: One of the teams I thought was going to do pretty good was North Dakota.
CHRIS: Yeah. They went from the scooper to the drum design this year. It looked pretty tough.
FRANKLIN: Yeah, they were my pick to win this year.
CHRIS: We’re very intrigued by you coming back with a drum design this year as opposed to the scooper that you’ve had in the past. Tell us why you decided to go with the drum.
STUDENT: We know in previous years we’ve had a little bit of a struggle getting into this material. You have to have the bucket at a certain angle. With this drum design, as the bucket comes around, the scoops both sweep through that maximum angle and really helps us scoop up as much as we can. We spent quite a bit of time last week actually testing. We got into about 30 seconds of digging was about our maximum weight.
BLAIR: You don’t have sensors that tell you that. So, you literally have to do that by experience.
STUDENT: Yep. If we get too heavy, the robot tips forward and dumps some back out.
FRANKLIN: I asked him how much time did you spend on your robot after your first run? He said we evened about 20 minutes, from their first run to the day on the robot because it wasn’t broke. They weren’t really trying to fix it. They were just trying to gain little points where they could. That shows they came here ready to play.
CHRIS: And they have a solid design.
FRANKLIN: Rock solid.
CHRIS: Now, there was one point where you hit a rock and it looked like you were tipping over a little bit. But with just the robustness & sheer power weight of your vehicle you overcame that obstacle, no problem.
STUDENT: That’s one of our best attributes; our robustness. I don’t think it’s going to break with anything in that pit. We just spun over it. I told them to back up, so he did but I don’t think we had to.
CHRIS: You set the tone. Okay? So, now that you’ve set the bar, you’re going to be in first place. Now you have to wait for two days. What’s the stress level going to be like?
STUDENT: It’s already high. I don’t know. We’re just going to try to enjoy Florida.
CHRIS: Franklin, you were on pins and needles that last day because we were wondering if North Dakota was going to be able to pull it off.
FRANKLIN: Yeah, you’re absolutely right. They were my number one pick. They did pretty well for the competition.
BLAIR: I really respect them for their transition from the scoop to the drum because design changes…that’s a big deal.
FRANKLIN: Speaking of design issues, the Florida Institute of Technology changed their design from last year and also the materials they used to create their robot.
BLAIR: Tell us a little bit about this unique design. This is the first time I’ve seen it where you actually have a ballast. Explain how this operates.
STUDENT: When we first designed our robot, we designed it with a backhoe design but we sized the bucket larger than what the chassis was able to actually excavate without having stability issues, tipping forward. I proposed a mass balance mechanism solely to add mass to the rear side of the chassis to balance out the scoop because of how large we designed it.
BLAIR: Now, I understand a lot of it was carbon fiber. How did you arrive at the decision to do that?
STUDENT: The entire robot is made out of carbon fiber aside from the fasteners & the electro-mechanicals. When I came to Florida Tech and proposed the idea for the robot to Dr. Reichard, he was like that’s a good idea but you guys are going to need to go with carbon fiber. I was really skeptical at first. I didn’t really understand the properties and characteristics of carbon fiber.
STUDENT: Then he made the first piece of the robot, put it in a 3-point bending test and showed me that it wouldn’t bend until we hit 1,700 pounds.
STUDENT: I was like, okay, I’m a converted person. I believe in this now.
BLAIR: Of course, a common problem for a lot of the teams during the competition was communications or comm issues. Describe for us what a comm issue is like in the midst of a run that clearly you were able to keep going.
STUDENT: For some reason, we kept getting disconnected. You’re communicating with the robot from your laptop. What happens is when you get disconnected in the middle of sending a command, that command sticks. So, if you’re going forward and you lose your connection, it’s going to keep going forward. That’s pretty much what happened to us three times.
BLAIR: When that happens, do you get a lot of frustration in there or is it a pretty calm environment?
STUDENT: The first time it was “what’s going on, what’s going on?” Then, after that, I’m alright, comm issue. Once we got control back we were right back on it. We stayed pretty calm.
FRANKLIN: How quick is the reset after you have a comm issue?
STUDENT: It was taking about 10 seconds to get connected back roughly.
BLAIR: Ten seconds is a premium in the arena but we’ve seen some teams that never recover.
STUDENT: Right. That’s exactly the first time it happened. We didn’t know we were going to get the controls back until we just waited and it stopped spinning. You noticed we did a doughnut for the first few minutes and then it just stopped then we were good to go again.
BLAIR: I was really encouraged to see teams could overcome these comm issues even mid-run during the competition.
CHRIS: Or even more complex issues is the fact that the international teams had to travel thousands of miles to Florida and reassemble their robots in the pits.
FRANKLIN: One of the teams that made that trip was the Military Institute of Science and Technology. We were joined by their good friend, Andres, to watch their runs.
BLAIR: I’m really excited to see this because we love to see our international teams do well primarily because they have just some really added obstacles in traveling so far. I know some schools, even domestic schools, drive a long way but there’s nothing quite like a 24-hour plane ride to take it out of you.
ANDRES: It looks like the Military Institute is getting ready to dump what they’ve got to this point. We’ll see if they can line it up. Make sure they get every last drop in there.
FRANKLIN: There we go.
ANDRES: Yeah. It’s always interesting to see the techniques. Some of them just slowly get up to the hoppers. Others try to run over the hopper.
ANDRES: Others bang into it.
CHRIS: Wow! That is impressive.
ANDRES: That is pretty impressive though, I have to say. That is looking…wow!
FRANKLIN: I wonder where it’s coming from.
ANDRES: I know! Did they have some stashed somewhere?
CHRIS: 22 kilograms. They qualify. Qualifying run. Great job Military Institute of Science & Technology.
ANDRES: That’s awesome.
FRANKLIN: Tanmoy, you had a qualifying, great 2nd run of the week. Tell us a little bit about it.
STUDENT: First of all, we tried to not get distracted. We didn’t change our way. We kept it simple and finally it worked.
STUDENT: They’re shouting behind us.
FRANKLIN: What was your plan when you started off? Was it to go and get the most and qualify? Because I saw you mine in several different places the first time around when you came up with that large number of regolith.
STUDENT: Our team leaders said that can collect anything in the first round; in the second round, whatever you can do. You just collect whatever you can do. You just collect!
STUDENT: They said to take all the risk because you have nothing to lose in the 2nd round. Just collect, just deposit; whatever you can collect, deposit. In the first round, we collected a lot but we couldn’t deposit. That’s very shameful.
CHRIS: Anyone you want to say “hello” to back home?
STUDENT: [Speaking Indian] Everyone, we are happy like hell. Thanks to all. Thanks to all.
BLAIR: Excellent qualifying run by the Military Institute of Science & Technology. What I really loved about it was seeing the regolith delivered but out of that scoop, more and more kept pouring out. Good job to those guys.
CHRIS: I tell you what, there were a lot of different designs during the competition. A lot of teams employed different strategies. We had a chance to talk to head judge Rob Mueller about those different strategies. Tell us the scoring break down. How does it work? What’s being scored?
ROB: The way the points are structured is that you can win with several different strategies. In the beginning years of the competition, it was heavily biased towards how much regolith can you dig? But, there’s more to it than that. First of all, you have to deliver your lunabot to the moon. So, if it’s big, bulky, and heavy, it’s going to be more expensive and harder to deliver to the moon. We wanted to give the teams credit if they had a lightweight, compact machine. We balanced it more. If you have a very light machine that doesn’t dig as much, you can still beat a machine that digs a tremendous amount of regolith but is heavier.
ROB: The point system is fine tuned so you can employ several different strategies. I think it’s been successful because we’ve seen a variety of robots show up.
CHRIS: I think we’ve seen four primary designs. We’ve seen the scooper, the auger, the conveyor system, and then a drum.
ROB: Yeah. And then a few exotics.
BLAIR & CHRIS: Yeah.
ROB: Even though you might have the best design you still might not win because something went wrong along the way. You can have a very good design, that’s poorly built. Or you could have a very good design, that’s very well built but poorly operated. Or you can have a very well operated design that breaks. Every team needs to strike a balance between operations, between design, between manufacturing, and then, of course, there’s the big one, which is the autonomy. Nobody has managed to do autonomy yet in the history of the competition. Caterpillar has offered a special autonomy prize. Our corporate goals are to have autonomous machines working in mines. We would like to encourage the competitors to pursue autonomy. They decided to push on that angle so that they can meet their corporate goals by having more people interested in that. So, independent of every other prize, there is a special autonomy prize.
BLAIR: Is it called a job?
CHRIS: Over the years, we’ve been talking about how this is important to Caterpillar because you’re looking at the future generation of engineers here, right here in this competition.
CHRIS: You are actually are hiring so many students that enter these competitions.
ERIC: Yes, we do. In fact, we have five now that are Lunabotic’s alumni at Caterpillar and one of them is actually here at the event, here at the CAT exhibit.
BLAIR: That’s great!
ERIC: 2012. So, last year’s alumni at the event.
BLAIR: Wait, wait, wait a minute. A new hire gets the joy of coming down to Florida back to the competition?
ERIC: Yeah, he’s right back from where he was last year.
BLAIR: Oh, man.
CHRIS: What better way to come back and give back.
ERIC: Give back to the whole event & community.
BLAIR: That’s a good point.
CHRIS: That’s right.
ERIC: And it is becoming a true community. All of them are working on technology that we, at Caterpillar, are looking at and needing for the future and to provide value to our customers. We are looking at technologies all the way from things that help support manned operations and improve and support that operator all the way through remote control like many of the teams are doing now to full autonomy. We’re seeing that. These teams are getting real, first hand experience, real world problems. The same kind of problems that we deal with day to day in the real world in that area, they’re getting that experience here.
CHRIS: It was great talking to Eric from Caterpillar because throughout the whole week the company showed a lot of outreach and support for the kids.
BLAIR: You know it’s interesting because outreach is actually a component of the competition. Each team has to come up with an outreach plan on how to tell people in the community about what they’re doing.
FRANKLIN: Blair, one of your favorite teams showed up with their own special kind of outreach, Team Robocol, which actually enhanced our broadcast.
BLAIR: Yes, we’re back and enjoying the benefits from Team Robocol, that must have just won a coffee bean mining competition because they have delivered nice, little cups of rich, Columbian coffee. It’s actually something very common here. Part this competition, teams do engage in outreach activities. One of the things that Team Robocol does is provide coffee. That’s part of their way of engaging the public. Let me tell you, I am fully engaged. I’m fully engaged with Team Robocol.
CHRIS: They’re influencing the scores from the NASA EDGE.
BLAIR: I’ve already scored them 100.
FRANKLIN: Here goes Team Robocol.
BLAIR: Yep, all right.
FRANKLIN: You’re going to hear a big cry from the crowd.
CHRIS: That’s a lot of regolith they’re dumping.
ANDRES: Yeah, it looks like it. Wow.
CHRIS: There you go, 9.4 kilograms. Oh… [Cheering]. That’s a qualifying run.
ANDRES: We were just chatting at how long it has taken them to get here the last three years. It’s been an awesome experience for them and to be able to accomplish the 16 kilograms they had today was huge. As you can see, they’re all excited. I almost feel like I’m at a soccer game in Columbia.
BLAIR: I have to admit I love the coffee that Team Robocol provided but what was more impressive and certainly more important was not only did they deliver regolith to the hopper but they actually delivered a qualifying run for the competition.
CHRIS: Another good school, the University of New Hampshire, a veteran team to the competition, had two, solid, qualifying runs. How did things go from your perspective?
STUDENT: Very well. We got a little more than expected. We already have more than we did last year. And we even found out that we could fall in the crater and nothing happens.
FRANKLIN: I saw that when you guys were backing up. It looked like a big crater and you guys went in and out of it with no problem.
STUDENT: No, we went in the crater at least three times and we even pushed one of the rocks away.
CHRIS: In fact, I saw there was one when you went to the hopper and you came back and elevated your front wheels. Was that by design?
STUDENT: No, no. That was not by design.
FRANKLIN: We’re you driving?
STUDENT: No, I was not driving.
FRANKLIN: Okay, all right.
CHRIS: We’re you nervous when you saw that?
STUDENT: Oh, I’m always nervous being in the control room.
CHRIS: Tell us about your design of your robot.
STUDENT: Pretty much, we made it as simple as possible. We’re a third year team, so we know that some of the complicated ones have so many things that can break. We had a great physical design last year so we used that again, then we completely did an electronic overhaul. That has apparently worked out very well.
BLAIR: As you approached this round from a strategy standpoint, were you just deciding to go all out?
STUDENT: Go big or go home.
STUDENT: We knew we wanted at least five scoops and we made sure most of our scoops had at least 10 kilograms in it.
BLAIR: How do you determine that? Do you have sensors?
STUDENT: We don’t, just by looking.
STUDENT: We know that if dust starts coming out of the bucket it’s a big one.
BLAIR: You know it was interesting. This is a robotics competition and I was actually quite surprised that the University of New Hampshire mentioned that they used almost a spidey sense to determine whether they had enough regolith in the hopper. I thought that would have all been governed by sensors.
FRANKLIN: Speaking of sensors, the University of Alaska Fairbanks could have used some sensors to make their way to the bin. The University of Alaska Fairbanks, their excavator is pretty unique but I don’t believe they’re going to get any points for not kicking up dust.
BLAIR: I’m very interested to see this because…Oh!
CHRIS: It seemed like you collected a lot of regolith and, all of the sudden, splash.
STUDENT: We did, yes. Unfortunately, we didn’t get any practice time on Monday due to an immense amount of teams lining up for that. We had been testing our robot in the sand pit. We can mine an impressive amount and collect an impressive amount but we did not have practice. So, we did not know how well the lunabot would behave when approaching the lunabin. We approached the lunabin perfectly, starting raising our dumps but the pilot could not quite see how close to the wall we were.
STUDENT: We started to back up a little bit more and the lunabot just crawled right up the wall because of our traction. Our mining conveyor, actually, we’ve measure it before. It mines an impressive 1 kg/second of material. The main problem we have right now is transferring that material into our side bins. The method we’re using right now is dirt flingers. It’s not completely efficient in that we lose a lot by overspill and that sort of thing because they can’t quite move as much as the mining conveyor can handle but if we improve that a little bit, we can mine 1 kg/second in good conditions.
CHRIS: You say you want to put a webcam on there. Is that something you brought with you already or do you have to go back?
STUDENT: We actually already have one webcam mounted on it. We mounted it on the side pointing towards the inside of the robot so we can see the inner workings of the robot while we’re driving. We’re programmed it to be really efficient in the frame rate. It will actually be a stationary frame until we hit the spacebar. It will grab one frame every time we hit the spacebar.
STUDENT: So, we can see exactly what’s happening, one frame at a second to conserve bandwidth.
BLAIR: For our audience, you do that because you are judged on the amount of bandwidth you use.
BLAIR: That’s actually strategic because you want to be able to keep that communication bandwidth low.
STUDENT: As low as possible. We are actually really good on that.
FRANKLIN: When you were making that second attempt, I was saying, you know what? They’re headed toward the hopper. Why don’t they just lift their buckets up while they’re moving and just go into the wall and dump at the same time? You actually started lifting your buckets up at the end but your time ran out.
FRANKLIN: What was the thought process down that home stretch?
STUDENT: Actually, my coach just shouted, “Just dump them here.”
BLAIR: One of the really important parts of the competition is that second run. You saw that with University of Alaska, after their first run, being able to go back and actually make adjustments for that second run.
FRANKLIN: It’s kind of like a stock car race when they pull into the pits. They make mid-race adjustments to come out and hit the rest of the track. That’s one of the things that University of Sydney did to make adjustments for their second run.
BLAIR: What happened? You guys basically broke the speed limit in the arena and got 82 kg of regolith. Good job!
STUDENT: Thank you.
BLAIR: Tell us about the run.
STUDENT: That was pretty close to our practice run because we built our own pit in Sydney pretty much the same size but we haven’t actually ran here on this pit with these sort of set ups. It’s a bit different. During our first run we had serious latency problems. It’s a bit hard to control something at high speed. When you move it, wait half a second and then, oh, I’m about to run into a wall; pull back and was over steering. It was a matter of fixing that. This time we got lucky and didn’t get latency. We took it out, made a few small changes and code tweaks to make it faster and just hammered the run this time.
BLAIR: Excuse me. When you say code changes, is that literally some of your team members around computers writing programs.
STUDENT: After the last run, we remapped all the controls to make it faster.
FRANKLIN: The moves that you made with your robot were so quick. It almost looked like it was a remote controlled toy car because you were moving and backing up. It looked like a DMV test. I don’t know if they have a DMV in Australia.
STUDENT: It’s called the ITA in Australia.
FRANKLIN: You were really moving. Who was driving?
FRANKLIN: Let me ask you a question. Do you play video games?
STUDENT: A lot.
FRANKLIN: [Laughing] Good deal.
BLAIR: I knew you were looking at the time to make sure you could get another run in. You came pretty hard up to the bin. You actually bumped into it a little bit. You were just being aggressive because you guys wanted to deliver.
STUDENT: Yes. Unfortunately, there’s not enough time in the arena to actually slow down and take it nicely sometimes.
BLAIR: University of Sydney had a great driver but I tell you the next school we’re going to talk about really took that to another level. They’re letting their robot do the driving with that elusive autonomous run. If I understand correctly your team is going to attempt an autonomous run today.
JIM: Yeah, that’s the goal. We were up till 5:00 this morning, worked through the night, getting everything squared away, running tests in the parking lot, eve did some testing on the beach earlier in the week, and we’ve got it all worked out. We’re going to give it a roll.
CHRIS: How many returning members do you have from last year’s team?
JIM: We have ten returning members from last year’s team.
CHRIS: What a great combination of having experienced members and new members coming on.
JIM: Yes. A fair number of members on our team this year are freshmen.
JIM: And some sophomores. We have a good mixture of juniors and seniors, some super seniors.
BLAIR: Super seniors?
JIM: Yeah, the 5th year students.
BLAIR: Oh, oh, I was golly, they had super heroes at that school. That doesn’t seem fair.
JIM: Well, it’s a little known secret.
FRANKLIN: I’m joined here by Aaron, Nathan, and the entire engineering team from Iowa State who had a successful 2nd round run here in the arena, Aaron and Nathan, tell us about your 2nd run.
STUDENT: We managed to avoid many of the issues we had for the 1st run in regards to communications, mainly by ignoring the problem entirely; making it work around regardless of communication issues. That worked out. We took the initial approach of full autonomy. We went out there, mined material, and started hunting for home and ended up missing the target by probably about this much. A quantifiable distance; let it spin around a few times trying to find it, and then eventually took over control and started digging ourselves.
FRANKLIN: You faculty advisor, Jim, was sitting here on the set. He was nervous. He didn’t really let it show.
CHRIS: How is he staying so calm and focused during the whole autonomy bit? He’s just sitting there calm.
JIM: I’m hanging on to this mic for dear life.
FRANKLIN: What was the thought inside the comm trailer when you knew that you were going to have to break away from autonomy?
STUDENT: Well, it wasn’t too hard of a decision. We knew we had a fair amount of material in the hopper. It’s not too hard to get back to the bin. It was more of a, shucks, 500 points. Ugh, okay. Come back and dump.
FRANKLIN: You knew going into this based on the way that this is scored that you really didn’t need that much regolith to take over 1st place. Why did you go for so much regolith?
STUDENT: Because we put the work into it. We wanted to see how much we could make it do.
FRANKLIN: You all are engineers. What do engineers do when they rejoice?
FRANKLIN: [laughing] You know what, Jim was actually a little more enthusiastic than that.
JIM: Oh my goodness!
CHRIS: 115.3 kg.
JIM: That is a record for us. Whoo hoo!
BLAIR: Wow! Jim is just about to be ejected from the set.
FRANKLIN: Do you all have an Iowa State cheer?
STUDENT: Do you want to go for it?
STUDENT: Who are we?
IOWA TEAM: ISU!
STUDENT: What do we do?
IOWA TEAM: Science!
FRANKLIN: Yeah. Hats off to Iowa State University for winning their 2nd Regolith Mining Competition.
CHRIS: And congratulations to the 49 other schools who participated this year.
BLAIR: It’s a great event. We really enjoy covering it. We look forward to coming back next year and seeing if Iowa State could possibly three-peat.
FRANKLIN: Ah, we’ll see.
CHRIS: You’re watching NASA EDGE.
FRANKLIN: An inside and outside look…
BLAIR: …at all things NASA.