Ohio Space Grant Award Helps Kent Robotics Team Prepare for Long-term Success
For the second straight year, Kent State University’s robotics mining team will not compete. The COVID19 pandemic canceled this year’s event at Kennedy Space Center, and last-year’s was reduced to a virtual event after the government shutdown held up NASA’s schedule.
However, a new $5,000 Student Innovative Creative Hands on Project (SICHOP) from the Ohio Space Grant Consortium (OSGC)/NASA ensures that Kent State students can continue their efforts to build a robot that could help NASA retrieve water and valuable elements from the surface of Mars or the Moon.
“The NASA Lunabotics Robotic Mining Competition is the main project KSU robotics does every year,” said Darwin Boyd, assistant professor in the College of Aeronatics and Engineering. “They’re not having a contest this year, but the students are still working at building a robot and expecting to compete again next year.”
Boyd, who worked as a research associate, contractor, and summer fellow at NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland between 1990 and 1999, is the KSU team’s director.
At the most recent in-person competition, two years ago, Kent State’s team placed third in the mining portion of the competition — the primary focus of the event.
“It had been focused on mining on Mars, but now they’ve shifted to focus more on lunar mining,” Boyd said. “It’s a competition NASA holds to get ideas. The robots the students build don’t have to be space qualified.”
Boyd said NASA’s focus also has shifted from mining for elements like gold and platinum to something more valuable: water.
“What they’re hoping to be able to find is ice beneath the surface, and dig down to get the water from that,” he said. “One problem is that the Moon and Mars don’t have nearly as much gravity as Earth. Here, a big backhoe or bulldozer is able to supply enough reaction forces to dig through the earth.”
The same is not true on the Moon where gravity prevents a vehicle from establishing or keeping traction, and efforts to dig into the soil just cause the vehicle to move from the digging site.
“It’s very difficult to get something on a spacecraft that could do that, you just can’t afford that much weight,” Boyd said. “You need a relatively light piece of equipment and they need to be able to minimize those reaction forces. That’s part of what they’re trying to get from university students. They’re looking for those ideas not in the usual things faculty might be looking at, but something a little wilder that they haven’t thought of yet.”
Boyd said roughly 40 teams usually compete, including the University of Akron and Case Western Reserve University. While most of those teams are composed largely of mechanical engineering students, Boyd said Kent’s team brings something different.
“One of the strengths of the Kent team has been its diversity,” he said. “We don’t have mechanical engineering at Kent, but our team has really done quite well. Other teams look at us and see members with experience in all different areas that they’ve been able to bring together. So, there’s a bit of envy both ways.”
Boyd said the team will spend the next year completely redesigning its model and building a significantly smaller bot to meet with NASA’s revised specifications.
“The lighter weight they have specified for is more akin to the way the robot would act on those surfaces, especially in terms of developing the reaction forces,” he said.
Jessica Tremayne-Farkas, firstname.lastname@example.org, 330-672-1498