Robots to the Rescue at the Kennedy Space Center

Kennedy Space Center

It’s no small task to build a fully autonomous robot capable of mining raw materials from the surface of Mars, but that’s exactly what a team of NYU Tandon School of Engineering students is attempting to do. For the sixth consecutive year, a Tandon team will be taking part in the NASA Robotic Mining Competition.

Students from throughout the country will converge on the Kennedy Space Center at the end of May to take part in the challenge, which involves traversing a simulated Martian terrain, excavating as much simulated regolith (the substance that covers the planet) as possible, and returning it in a timely fashion to a collector bin.

The competition has a serious purpose: In order to sustain human life on Mars and enable a return trip back to Earth, NASA is researching In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU). If robotic excavators can be developed to extract raw resources like regolith, they can then be converted into water, fuel, building media, and other useful materials.

The unique physical properties of basaltic regolith, reduced gravity and other factors make off-world excavation a difficult technical challenge, NASA officials explain, and advances in Martian mining have the potential to significantly contribute to our nation’s space vision and space exploration operations.

In addition to the on-site mining event – which will force them to take into account such factors as dust tolerance and energy usage – teams are required to submit a systems engineering paper that explains their design philosophy.

Team captain Orion Doscher is keeping the final design under wraps for now but hints that the team – whose advisors are Professor of Computer Science and Engineering Haldun Hadimioglu and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Siddharth Garg – may incorporate computer vision into their four-wheel-drive robot, along with wheels that double as digging tools. (In previous competitions, designs generally involved an unwieldy digging arm.)

While coming up with an elegant and efficient robotic vehicle might be a full-time task for some, members of the Tandon team have made time during the semester to mentor younger aspiring roboticists: they’ve been a welcome presence at the Brooklyn High School of Technology, where they coach the TechKnights, a group of students participating in the FIRST Robotics Competition. The 17th Anniversary FIRST New York City Competition & Expo was held from April 7 to 9, at the Armory Track & Field Center, and it doesn’t take too big a leap to imagine those high school tech whizzes heading off to the Kennedy Space Center in a few years, following in the regolith-encrusted footsteps of their Tandon mentors.

See It for Yourself

The Tandon Robotic Mining team will be on hand at the school’s 2017 Research Expo on Friday, April 21. In addition to a possible glimpse of their design, the interactive expo will showcase dozens of the other most promising and exciting research projects going on at Tandon.