Gavin Garner / Engineering
While I would love to take some of our engineering students on a trip to the moon as part of my Mead Endowment “dream idea,” I realize that this would probably exceed the allotted budget and require filling out lots of lengthy consent forms. However, the next best thing, visiting the Kennedy Space Center and testing a student-built robot in a simulated Martian environment, is certainly feasible. For the past five years, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) has hosted a Robotics Mining Competition through which university students from around the world have actively participated in helping to advance our (i.e. humanity’s) space exploration capabilities. NASA engineers have been struggling to find the best ways to implement what is called an “in situ resource utilization” (ISRU) strategy necessary for being able to send humans to an asteroid or Mars with our current technology and budget constraints. Known for being rather clever (what they do is exactly rocket science!), NASA engineers developed a way to let hundreds of top engineering students help them to invent and test novel ways to mine for valuable resources on alien worlds.
Making the voyage to Mars would take astronauts about 9 months, and, of course, it would also be nice if we could safely return them back home to Earth afterward – at least another 9 month journey through the desolate vacuum of space (depending on how the planets are aligned). As just one example of the vast amount of resources required for such a lengthy journey, a human being would typically need to consume around 550 gallons of water over this year-and-a-half timeframe – about 4,500lbs worth. It currently costs around $10,000 per pound to launch things into space and there are also size limitations associated with a spacecraft’s payload capacity. Strong evidence suggests that water can be reclaimed from the regolith (pulverized rock dust) “soil” on the surface of the Moon, Mars, and asteroids (along with precious elements like gold, platinum, Helium-3, and diamonds). If we can develop a way to collect and process water from this regolith/soil, we may be able to obtain this indispensable resource along the way, in situ, by stopping by the Moon, an asteroid, or by collecting water directly from the Martian surface upon arrival. Furthermore, using electrolysis techniques (perhaps powered by free solar energy) water can be split into hydrogen and oxygen to be used as rocket propellant for the return trip. The tedious and often dangerous task of collecting tons of regolith material outside of a mother ship or space station would ideally be performed by an autonomous or remote-controlled robot.
U.Va.’s HoosMining Robotics Team:
Last fall, a group of over a dozen 1st-year engineering students, led by Neeraj Gandhi, approached me and asked me to help advise them as they endeavored to form a team and compete in the NASA Robotic Mining Competition for the first time. Even though most of them were Rodman Scholars (representing the very top engineering students at our University) and had participated in the FIRST robotics program in high school, it was obvious to me from the start that they had no idea how difficult a challenge they were undertaking or how much of my own blood, sweat, and tears they were asking me to commit to it. Nonetheless, I agreed to help them.
As the faculty advisor for U.Va.’s chapter of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME), I have helped to coach student teams through the annual ASME design competitions for the past five years. We have put a tremendous effort into these competitions, placed 1st in the regional qualifier competitions for the past two years, and thereby gone on to compete in the international finals, flying out to both Houston and San Diego. Unfortunately, the students and I have consistently been disappointed while participating in these ASME competitions because they were not very well organized, and it was usually quite devastating (for our teams as well as others) when thousands of hours of work would go up in smoke (sometimes literally) at the whim of a judge’s interpretation of a vague set of rules – despite the rulebooks often being thousands of clauses long. I initially expected that this NASA Robotic Mining Competition would not be much different. I was wrong. After attending this event this past May with a handful of students as a sort of trial run and being thoroughly impressed by how professional, serious, and important this event actually is, I am convinced that next year we should put a lot more time, effort, and financial resources into our participation.
Last fall, U.Va.’s HoosMining team was formed as a subset of U.Va. ASME, and I enlisted a handful of upperclassmen with much more engineering and design experience to assist these fledgling 1st-year students. Their mission was to design and construct a robot that could collect and deposit as much regolith material (Martian soil simulant) as possible in ten minutes. Because regolith is dangerous to inhale and expensive to come by and store, our students often used ordinary baking flour during testing, which has a similar consistency (except for the fact that it absorbs moisture, tends to clump, and makes for a much tastier pizza crust). Sand could also be used to roughly simulate Martian regolith.
Three students then boarded a Greyhound bus for a grueling 16-hour overnight trip down to Florida. (As 1st-years, they did not have cars, and since they were not yet 21 years old, they were not even able to rent a car.) Three more students were planning to go down in a 3rd-year student’s compact car, but, at the last minute, they found that they could not fit the large robot and two passengers into the car at the same time and sadly one student had to be left behind. Two days later, after fulfilling my responsibilities as a faculty marshal during the graduation ceremonies, I personally purchased two airline tickets and a second hotel room so that a recently-graduated 4th-year student who had worked on this project could accompany me down to the competition (though when I found out later that he had already landed a job earning a six-figure salary, I realized that he probably should have been the one treating me to this flight and hotel room instead!).
When we arrived at the Kennedy Space Center, the robot was still not yet fully operational so we basically locked ourselves in a small hotel room for the rest of the week, working around the clock, sleeping in 3-hour shifts (if we were lucky), and putting forth a superhuman effort into last-minute programming and soldering so as not to be completely embarrassed during the competition. Unfortunately, at around 4am on the day of our first trial run, while replacing one of the robot’s massive Lithium polymer batteries, a wire came loose, fell onto our circuit board, and shorted out one of the H-bridge drivers for our motors. After some dramatic sparks, flames, and smoke, we were devastated to find that our robot had, in an instant, been completely crippled. With a lot more work and improvisation, we were able to compensate for this during our second run, but without fully operational H-bridge circuits, our robot did not have enough power to overcome some of the obstacles in the course in order to successfully mine regolith. To put things into perspective, though, over 50 universities signed up for this year’s competition, of those only around 30 actually made it through qualifying rounds to be invited down to Cape Canaveral, and only 8 of those teams were able to get their robots to successfully move and collect regolith during the competition – and for most of those 8 teams it was the 5th consecutive year that they had participated in this competition (the rules are the same each year). This is an extremely difficult project, but, following in the spirit of President Kennedy’s inspirational words, this is exactly why we chose to do it
Dream Idea Budget:
Successfully competing in the NASA Robotic Mining Competition in May 2015 is going to require a lot more than $3,000 worth of funding and is therefore well beyond the scope of what the Mead Endowment could fully support in and of itself. For comparison, at the competition last May, I learned that Virginia Tech’s team (which actually did not fare much better than ours despite it being the 5th time that they had participated and that their students had worked on their robot throughout the year as the basis for a capstone design course) had over $15,000 of funding for their entry into the competition. I’m confident that the students and I will once again be able to raise enough money to fund the building of a new robot from the SEAS experiential learning fund, industry sponsors, and private donors. This award would instead be used to enhance the experience and make it more enjoyable for all those who participate – both in the arena and watching from the sidelines.
The Virginia Tech team’s faculty advisor and I have already discussed the idea of having our teams meet and compete in an exhibition match several weeks before going down to the actual NASA competition next year. This might help to push all of us to get started and finished much earlier instead of at the very last minute. Part of this Mead-based funding could go toward financing such an exhibition match (hosted at U.Va.) next spring. This could help bring University-wide attention and excitement for what our engineering students on the HoosMining team are doing. It may be possible to hold this match in the sand on the volleyball courts by Nameless Field.
I would plan to use the majority of this year’s Kinnier Award funding to help make the trip down to Florida a little bit less grueling for 6 to 10 students and their faculty advisor next May. Simply being able to rent a van and afford more than two hotel rooms for all of the students to share would go a long way toward making this experience much more positive next year. (For example, I learned that the Virginia Tech team had rented a van and a beach house while they were there this year.) Furthermore, with a van, we could also take our time coming back from Florida after the competition is over and tour through various manufacturing plants to better appreciate engineering in context. Also, and this probably goes without saying, if by some miracle we actually win the competition next year, we are going to Disney World!