UNH LunaCats Rocket to Third Place in NASA Robot Mining Competition

UNH LunaCats Rocket to Third Place in NASA Robot Mining Competition

Thursday, May 30, 2013

UNH LunaCats team at the Kennedy Space Center

The 2013 UNH LunaCats team at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. L-R: Front row: James Clifford, Jonathan Shepard, Anthony Edmonds, Caleigh MacPherson, Jonathan Wilson; back row: Timothy Gerade, Antoine Procyk, Nicolas Grauel. Credit: Courtesy of UNH LunaCats 

While it’s the off season for most Wildcats, a team of UNH students recently returned from an international competition with a trophy. The UNH LunaCats rocketed to a surprising third-place finish in NASA’s fourth annual Lunabotics Mining Competition May 20 – 24, 2013. The competition, held at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, hosted 50 teams from universities across North America and the world whose remote-controlled excavators “mined” for a substance that simulated regolith, found on Earth’s moon as well as on other planetary bodies and asteroids.   

The UNH robot, created by a team of seven undergraduates, a graduate student, and an alumnus, claimed third place behind powerhouse teams from Iowa State University and the University of North Dakota by mining 36.6 and 47.6 kilograms of simulated regolith in two 10-minute rounds. The LunaCats also took the first-place trophy in the Efficient Use of Communications Power award. 

“We kind of came out of nowhere,” says Caleigh MacPherson ’12, ’14G, a master’s student in mechanical engineering in her second year as team captain. “As a smaller engineering school, we definitely surprised the judges. We surprised ourselves, too.” 

After finishing in a respectable ninth place in 2012, the 2013 team credits its success to experience and simplicity. Many first-year teams could barely drive their robots in the simulant-filled “arena,” let alone dig for “samples;” the LunaCats worked out those kinks during the past two years. 

This year, says MacPherson, “our goal was to simplify everything.” Their robot boasted just four moving parts and was controlled by a netbook attached to it instead of the custom-built computer that was its brain last year. “So many things can go wrong with complicated parts,” MacPherson says. 

The simplified design meant that the LunaCat robot -- named MOOSE (Magically Optimized Outer Space Excavator) “because it’s fun and we’re from New Hampshire,” MacPherson says – was lighter than many of its competitors, giving it an edge in the scoring system. If such a robot were to mine true regolith on a celestial body, lightness would be an advantage, MacPherson notes. 

While the specific skill of crafting a robot to mine a lunar surface may not be transferable, team members nonetheless credit the competition as a fantastic learning experience. “It’s great hands-on building, and we get to see it in action,” says MacPherson. She adds that the multi-disciplinary aspect of the team, which boasts members from the mechanical engineering, electrical and computer engineering, and computer science departments, promotes cross-disciplinary learning. 

Plus, she says, the competition was a blast. “It was a week in Florida, we got to be in a robotics competition, and we’re nerds.” 

In addition to MacPherson, of Lee, this year’s LunaCats team  includes mechanical engineering majors Drew Garvey ’13 (Nashua), Antoine Procyk ’13 (North Conway), James Clifford ’13 (Lee), Jonathan Shepard ’14 (Danville), and Anthony Edmonds ’14 (Merrimack); computer science majors Nick Grauel ’13 (Bow) and Jonathan Wilson ’12 (Dover); and electrical engineering major Tim Gerade ’13 (Milford). May-Win Thein, associate professor of mechanical engineering, advises the team. 

The team sought sponsorships to offset its expenses; Portsmouth-based Avid Corporation was its most generous outside sponsor. UNH’s mechanical engineering, computer science, and electrical and computer engineering departments, College of Engineering and Physical Sciences, N.H. Space Grant, Parents Association, May-Win Thien, and the Student Activity Fee Committee were among the other sponsors of the team. In addition to Avid, external sponsors were Albany International, Unisensor, HydroComp Inc., Reactive Technologies, Fin-Landis Techniker, Goss International, Main Street Mailing, and Mariner Realty. 

Learn more about the UNH LunaCats on Facebook (www.facebook.com/UNHLunabotics) or their website (www.unh.edu/lunacats).