TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — In what’s become a common theme in the past year, a team of University of Alabama students won a national championship. The latest championship came not on an athletic field, rather on a simulated lunar surface navigated by robots.
Alabama Lunabotics, a team of students from The University of Alabama and Shelton State Community College, won the top prize in the NASA Lunabotics Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. The week-long contest included more than 50 teams from universities around the world.
The team was challenged with designing and building an autonomous, or remote controlled, excavator called a lunabot. The robot was tasked with collecting and scooping a minimum of 10 kilograms of a lunar-like material within 10 minutes. Design challenges include the abrasive characteristics of the material, the weight and size limitations of the lunabot and the ability to control the lunabot remotely.
On-site, the judging consisted of the robot’s weight, how much material it excavated and deposited along with the amount of bandwidth used to communicate to the robot. The team was also judged on its systems engineering paper, community outreach, a presentation, team spirit and the multidisciplinary level of the team.
On May 26, the last day of the contest, NASA officials announced Alabama Lunabotics notched the most points in the competition, winning the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence. The team also won first place for its presentation and demonstration, first place for team spirit and second place in the mining portion of the competition.
In all, Alabama Lunabotics won $8,000 to use for next year’s competition, and NASA will pay for this year’s team and faculty adviser to participate at one of NASA’s remote research and technology tests. They also received an invitation to watch a spacecraft launch at Kennedy Space Center as guests of NASA.
The group was led by experienced students marking their second or third year on the team. In 2010, the first year NASA held the competition, Alabama Lunabotics placed sixth, and, in 2011, the team placed fourth, said Dr. Kenneth Ricks, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and the team’s faculty adviser.
“The students on this UA team are very talented engineers with competition experience,” Ricks said. “That experience of being at the competition before is very valuable, so they knew what had to be done to be competitive.”
Ricks said the lunabot designed by the team was strong, lightweight and versatile, a combination many teams found hard to master.
“The UA robot is solid in both its electronics and controls as well as its mechanical design,” he said. “This overall balance between electrical and mechanical aspects of the project is difficult to achieve for many teams.”
Adam Melton, a member of the team from Hoover, said the team got a lot of points for having a semi-autonomous robot, meaning the lunabot navigated the terrain on its own after being told where to go, and the goal next year will be to make the lunabot fully autonomous.
The competition taught team members systems engineering, or the ability to break up a complicated task or project into smaller pieces so it can be better managed.
“We all understood systems engineering much better,” he said.
Melton said the win was possible because every team member performed their task well. The team consists of:
• Justin Baker, an electrical engineering sophomore at Shelton State from Tuscaloosa
• Jessica Colburn, a public relations junior from Hoover
• Justin Headley, an electrical engineering graduate student from Cropwell
• Adam Melton, an electrical engineering sophomore from Hoover
• Dalen Mullenix, an electrical engineering freshman at Shelton State from Gordo
• Andrew Price, an electrical engineering graduate student from Birmingham
• Logan Ream, a mechanical engineering senior from Dunwoody, Ga.
• David Sandel, an electrical engineering graduate student from Dothan
• Mitchell Spryn, an electrical engineering sophomore from Williamsburg, Va.
• Stephanie Troy, a geology senior from Tuscaloosa
• Jason Watts, an electrical engineering graduate student from Northport
• Matt Westberry, a mechanical engineering graduate student from Dothan
The team received funding from the Alabama Space Grant Consortium, the UA Student Government Association and numerous other sponsors providing in-kind donations including JOY Mining Machinery, SolidWorks, Walter Energy, Zoe’s Kitchen, B&B Sports, AAR and IECS Inc.
In 1837, The University of Alabama became one of the first five universities in the nation to offer engineering classes. Today, UA’s fully accredited College of Engineering has more than 3,300 students and more than 100 faculty. In the last eight years, students in the College have been named USA Today All-USA College Academic Team members, Goldwater, Hollings, Portz and Truman scholars.
The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.