Competing against dozens of renowned four-year universities, including Purdue, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Virginia Tech, the College of DuPage Robotics Team had a strong showing at NASA’s 10th Annual Robotic Mining Competition held earlier this month at the University of Alabama.
During the competition, students faced a variety of challenges, including the abrasive characteristics of the basaltic regolith simulant, the weight and size limitations of the mining robot, and the ability to tele-operate it from a remote location. Scoring was based on autonomy, communications, dust tolerance and projection, power requirements, vehicle mass and other factors. Robots were required to mine gravel simulating icy Mars regolith located beneath approximately 30 cm of simulated Mars surface regolith. A minimum of 1 kg of mined gravel was required to score mining points.
Weighing in at 70 kilograms, the team’s robot featured a six-inch diameter auger for digging, a bin to carry and transport the payload and a conveyor belt mechanism to dump the payload into the receptacle at the competition. Since teams were required to control the robot out of sight of the competition area, the robot featured fore, aft and overhead video cameras to allow for navigation. The robot also featured four-wheel drive and differential steering.
Despite the competition parameters, Robotics Team Captain John Deuschle, the biggest challenges were those that cropped up leading up to the competition.
“As soon as we got the robot shipped back from the previous competition, we found that many things had rusted during the trip and would have to be replaced, many by components we could no longer purchase and would have to make ourselves,” he said. “When we tried testing it in the weeks leading up to having to ship it away, something would break during every test. An axle would shear, a rod would catch on the wheels, the new electrical box wouldn't close, and the conveyor chain would pop off. Sometimes changes to better fix these would cause new problems on their own.”
Deuschle said the challenges continued at the competition, but the team was rallied by the support of one of their faculty advisors.
“We found that the structure for a part of the robot had snapped the welds holding its weight during shipping and spent the first half of the competition, time usually available for practicing, with an inoperable robot as we tried to fix that and anything else that we could,” he said. “Faculty Adviser Bob Clark really deserves credit for encouraging us to address lingering problems that we'd been afraid to mess with. We were worried that they were too sensitive to risk making worse or that we wouldn't be able to finish them on time, but Bob pushed us to confront them and kept us on track to do so. I was surprised when we completed the repairs and was barely worried about them we put our robot in to compete.”
COD Physics Professor and Robotics Team Faculty Advisor Tom Carter said Deuschle provided great leadership to the team as it navigated each unforeseen challenge.
“John was not only the official team captain, he led the way in pulling off some miracle repairs to the robot,” he said. “I think if John hadn't been there and if the team was less determined and talented, we would have unpacked the robot, looked at the broken welds, packed it back up and called it a day.”
Deuschle said that the competition provided a wealth of experience and benefits to the team members.
“For me, the most notable thing about the competition is that it is a ‘real’ experience. You hear about needing to make unusual sacrifices, having to deal with unexpected problems, and nothing ever being as simple as it seems on the job, but the classroom hardly comes close to actually conveying the feeling of a professional setting,” he said. “Being a part of competitions like these has given me a much better understanding of what could be expected when I begin my career, while better preparing me to handle it. During the competition, I also developed more respect for the other members of the team, the kind of respect distinct to people who you've worked closely with in times that require unusual diligence and perseverance.”
(Pictured, left to right: Ashhud Rajput (Naperville), Edward Pittsford (Wheaton), Kenneth Segovia (Hanover Park), Adam Popper (Lemont), Alexandra Monaves (Willow Springs), John Deuschle (Lemont).