August 2011

A feel for the equipment

Laurentian students win moon mining competition

By Graham Lanktree


The Laurentian University lunabot scooped up almost 240 kilograms of simulated lunar regolith – more than enough to claim victory in NASA’s Lunabotics mining competition in Florida in May | Courtesy of Laurentian University

Eight Laurentian University engineering students seized the top prize in NASA’s Lunabotics Mining Competition last month, beating 36 teams from international universities – Ivy League schools among them – in a landslide win.

Taking inspiration from the heavy machinery and mining industry around its school in Sudbury, the team’s winning teleoperated mining robot, or “lunabot,” managed to dig and transport a record 237.4 kilograms of simulated lunar regolith in under 15 minutes, more than 60 kilograms more than its closest competitor, at the six-day event at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in May.

“Really, the fact that this team did as well as they did is no mistake,” said Markus Timusk, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Laurentian and the team’s adviser. “They drew a lot on their local summer jobs. One of the students had worked at a company designing trailers for materials handling, so he had a feel for what a piece of equipment needs to do, and how to design it.”

The robot’s speedy bucket chain, which gave it the edge over other designs, comes directly from mining, said team member Greg Lakanen. But if next year’s field of fourth-year mechanical engineering students wants to compete, they will need to have something new up their sleeve.

Although pleased with the results of the two-year-old contest, the rules need to change for next year, said Rob Mueller, Lunabotics’ head judge and chief of NASA’s surface systems office. “Many of the contenders had a high parts count and created their own dust cloud as they dug,” he said. “On the moon, there’s no air, so there’s no cooling for the parts as they get covered in lunar regolith, which is an extremely good conductor.”

Upcoming rule changes may include points for reducing dust lofting, robot mass and inclusion of mock radiators on the device, Mueller said. “But still, I want to make the rules as simple as we can to maximize the possibility for creativity,” he explained.  After all, he added, the first goal of the competition is to inspire students and to get them interested in continuing on in this field.

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