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Thursday, June 03, 2010

USI engineering students place in NASA competition

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Betty Vawter
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Engineering team members Thomas Calhoun 2010 Flint Rasure, sophomore Hasan Odeh 2010 Alex Schnautz, senior and Matt Schneider 2010 designed and built a robot for the first annual Lunabotics Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center.

The robot dug and dumped 2.4 kilograms of simulated lunar soil to place third overall in the competition. The students won $1,000 and will receive engraved plaques. They also will get VIP tickets to attend a shuttle launch at the Kennedy Space Center.

The USI team received an additional $500 as winners of the team spirit competition. The award was based on teamwork, attitude, creativity, engagement, and originality.

Sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the engineering competition attracted teams from 22 universities throughout the country. Competition rules called for the robot to excavate and deliver at least 10 kilograms of simulated moon soil into the collector container in 15 minutes. Excavation is a necessary first step toward extracting resources from regolith (moon soil) and building bases on the moon.

The Montana State University team won the competition with a robot that excavated 21.6 kilograms of simulated moon dirt. The Montana State robot was the only one to meet the mass requirement. The robot from Auburn University excavated 6.6 kilograms, and the USI robot, dubbed iDigU, was able to collect and empty 2.4 kilograms. Officially, Auburn and USI were named first and second honorable-mention winners, respectively.

Odeh said on the first day of competition that most teams were unable to collect and empty regolith simulant. The USI conveyor-based robot was able to collect the material but not dump it. Team members modified the robot to increase the angle of the dumping mechanism.

Before leaving for the competition, the team practiced with the robot at the sand volleyball courts on campus. Sand flows into flatter piles when poured than the moon dirt simulant. The modifications on the robot allowed it to accommodate the simulant's higher angle of repose.

On the second day of competition, five teams successfully collected the simulant from a large sandbox and emptied it. Odeh said several teams had catastrophic hardware failure or unresolved connection issues.

Calhoun said iDigU's wide base was essential to keep it from tipping. The USI robot was one of the competition's largest robots, weighing 79.57 kilograms - .43 kilograms under the 80-kilogram mass limit. It was just centimeters shy of the 1.5 meter width and .75 meter length limits.

"We were definitely stretching the boundaries," he said.

The USI team received funding from a USI Endeavor Award for Research and Creativity, the USI Department of Engineering, and the Indiana Space Grant Consortium. The team traveled to Florida in a University van and a rented box truck. Calhoun said that the ability to transport the robot fully assembled and to carry an assortment of tools contributed to the team's success. Some teams had to break down their robots for shipping. Some were still building their robots while the USI team cleaned and polished theirs.

The USI students loaned tools and spare parts to competitors. Dr. Glen Kissel, assistant professor of engineering, said the students' friendliness and active assistance to a number of teams contributed to their winning the team spirit award.

The competition focused national attention on USI and, in particular, the engineering program.

Kissel said, "It is a testament to the team's hard work that they were able to outperform robotics powerhouses like Carnegie Mellon and Virginia Tech."

A complete list of teams in the competition is available online. USI was the only team from Indiana.

Kissel, Dr. Paul Kuban, associate professor of engineering, and Eric Sprouls, associate professor of engineering, were faculty advisors for the project. Kissel and Kuban accompanied the students on the trip. The Lunabotics Mining Competition took place May 25-28.

The design and building of the robot was a capstone project for the seniors on the team. "I used everything I learned from my engineering classes to complete this project," Calhoun said.

During the competition, the USI team won a lottery to attend the May 26 landing of the space shuttle Atlantis. The shuttle was making its final landing after 25 years of service with NASA.

Calhoun enjoyed talking with one of the astronauts, Mike Massimo, about life lessons. He told the team that failures are just another lesson.

Calhoun agreed. He has experienced that life lesson already. When iDigU's original track system of movement developed a problem in testing on the volleyball courts, the students considered getting a new track but did not have the necessary three-week lead time. They bought and installed wheels.

The most memorable moment from the trip for Calhoun was the awards banquet in the Apollo/Saturn V Center where the engineering students ate in the shadow of a massive Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the moon and back. The team also watched a nighttime launch of an Air Force Delta IV rocket carrying a Global Positioning System satellite.

USI offers a Bachelor of Science in Engineering. Students may customize their program with technical electives in four areas: mechatronics or electrical, mechanical, or civil engineering.

The lunabotics team members brought expertise in different areas to the project. Calhoun, Odeh, and Rasure concentrate on electives in electrical engineering. Schneider's interest is in civil engineering, and Schnautz focuses on mechanical engineering. The competition required a systems engineering approach, which involves the design of separate subsystems (electrical, mechanical, etc.) and then integrating them into a full working design.

Calhoun, Odeh, Schnautz, and Schneider are from Evansville. Rasure is from Posey County, Indiana.

NASA sponsored the competition to promote interest in space activities and STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) fields.

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