COD Students Compete in Seventh Annual NASA Robotic Mining Competition

Geared toward undergraduate and graduate student teams, the competition required teams to design and build a mining robot that could navigate a simulated Martian terrain, excavate as much simulated Martian regolith (superficial material covering solid rock) and gravel as possible, and deposit the material into a collection bin.

For the second year in a row, College of DuPage was one of only two community colleges invited to participate in the 2016 NASA Robotic Mining Competition held at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Click here to view photos of the team preparing the robot for the competition.

Members of the Engineering Club who participated in the recent NASA competition in Florida included Christopher Childs-Moore, Lisle; Maxwel Cichon, Bloomingdale; Nathan Hinz, Westmont; Jenny Kaeppel, Naperville; Nemanja Kuzmanovic, Darien; Katharine Lewis, Wheaton; Alexis Miranda, Bloomingdale; David Samuels, Winfield; Jacob Smith, Lombard; Alec Steinkraus, Plainfield; and Nicholas Stewart, Bloomingdale.

This year’s NASA Robotic Mining Competition included competitors from more than 40 schools across the country.

Featuring 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 Mission Control Center, scoring during the competition included a number of factors such as autonomy, communications, dust tolerance and projection, power requirements, and vehicle mass. In addition, teams were required to submit an in-depth systems engineering report and a written description of engineering-related outreach undertaken by students.

“Faculty advisor HVACR Assistant Professor Bob Clark and I are extremely proud of these students who have worked hard and invested many hours of their free time in this project,” said Engineering Club advisor and Assistant Engineering Professor Scott Banjavcic. “The team competed very well in the competition and vastly improved upon performance at past robotic competitions. They also learned many new lessons to carry into future competitions.”

According to team member Nemanja Kuzmanovic, the team’s journey – from the initial design brainstorming sessions through the build process and to the competition – was an invaluable learning experience. He said the process revealed to him why teamwork is so important in engineering.

“Engineering is a team sport and a project cannot be completed by one person alone,” he said. “During the design process, we were able to build off of each other’s ideas and experience to come up with the best way of achieving our goals. The build process taught me the importance of communication between engineers and machinists. If a drawing was not properly dimensioned and labelled, it made manufacturing very difficult and often times impossible.”

Kuzmanovic, who has just completed COD’s Engineering Pathways program and will be transferring to the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign,  in the fall, said the most valuable lessons were gained during the competition at the Kennedy Space Center.

“The importance of repetitive testing was stressed while we were at the competition,” he said. “Every time we tested the robot we found a new issue that we could resolve. Every glitch discovered during testing reduces the potential issues you could have when competing.”

While the team designed and built this year’s robot from scratch, the design was similar to last year’s robot but featured several modifications based on last year’s performance.

Weighing in at 58 kilograms, 21 kilograms less than last year’s robot and 22 kilograms under the competition’s 80-kilogram limit, the robot features 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. Remote control is achieved through a repurposed Xbox gaming console controller connected to a laptop and a Raspberry Pi transmitter. Since teams were required to control the robot from a NASA mission control center out of sight of the competition area, the robot featured fore, aft and overhead video cameras to allow for navigation. In response to driving problems experienced at last year’s competition, the team also switched the robot from differential steering to rear-wheel drive and pivot steering.

According to robotics team-member Alexis Miranda, some of the most important design modifications involved the auger assembly and the structure of the wheels.

“The auger was modified to pivot at a single point to dig at an optimal angle rather than having heavy arms move the auger into the right position like the previous robot. This saved weight and worked really well,” Miranda said. “For the wheels, instead of having giant cylinders with cleats attached to them we used a wire mesh to allow the regolith to sift through the wheels allowing it to glide over surface instead of digging into the surface.”

Having just completed her freshman year at College of DuPage, Miranda plans to pursue a career in chemical engineering. She said the NASA Mining competition, as well as the Midwest Robotics Design competition the team competed in earlier this spring, provided wonderful learning experiences.

“I’ve learned a great deal from these competitions beyond the classroom environment,” Miranda said. “It is one thing to be sitting and taking notes on concepts and another thing to actually see those concepts in action. These competitions have also taught me that failure is nothing to fear because it fosters growth.”

Like Kuzmanovic, Miranda said she learned about the necessity of repeated testing of the product to ensure the best performance. She said she was pleased with the team’s performance at the competition.

“I learned how to think quickly and be resourceful,” she said. “As a team, we stayed level-headed and attacked every problem we faced in a fast and effective way. Despite the robot’s Wi-Fi and motor issues, our robot performed better than most.”

Miranda said she chose COD because the College was recommended as a great school that offers quality education at an affordable price and she would recommend the school to other serious engineering students.

“The professors in the Engineering department are spectacular and are willing to go the extra mile to help their students. The program at COD is a hidden gem of engineering programs in the nation.” 

Kuzmanovic said he was pleased with his experiences at the competitions and as a student at COD.

“Going to COD has allowed me to pursue my dream of becoming an engineer from UIUC in a much more cost effective manner,” he said. “Receiving a degree from a top 10 engineering school at a fraction of the price was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up.”

Click here for more information about the Engineering program at College of DuPage.

Click here for more information about the Engineering Club at College of DuPage.

            Pictured above from left to right: COD Engineering Club members Katherine Lewis, Alexis Miranda, Maxwel Cichon, Nathan Hines, Jacob Smith, David Samuels, Christopher Childs-Moore, Nicholas Stewart, Alec Steinkraus, Nemanja Kuzmanovic and Jennifer Kaeppel.

Mike McKissack (630) 942-2376

College of DuPage is an accredited community college that serves more than 29,000 students each term. The College, which grants nine associate degrees and more than 170 certificates in 100 areas of study, is the second largest provider of public undergraduate education in Illinois.