TUSCALOOSA – Alabamians put a man on the moon, and now it looks like they’ll be leading the way when the time comes to mine Mars as well.
A group of students from the University of Alabama and Shelton State Community College has become the first team to win back-to-back championships at a national robotics competition sponsored by NASA.
Alabama Astrobiotics, a group comprised of students from engineering and computer science disciplines from Alabama and Shelton State, won the top prize at the NASA Robotic Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida last week – the team’s second win in two years. The team was awarded top points in all three categories of competition and was presented with the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence and $10,000 to use on next year’s robot.
The Alabama team is the first group in the history of the competition to win two consecutive championships. Overall, the team has won three championships in the competition’s seven-year history. This year, the team faced tough competition from 45 teams from across the country.
The robots used in the competition are designed to navigate and excavate through 10 kilograms of simulated Martian soil. Each robot was allowed two 10-minute runs to excavate as much soil as possible, and was judged on its excavation capabilities, ability to move autonomously, and size and weight.
“Every year the level of competition improves across the board,” said Dr. Kenneth Ricks, team adviser and UA associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “What separated the UA robot from the others is that it performed well in all three areas: digging and collecting; robot mass; and autonomy. That combination was unequaled by the competition.”
Each year the team designs and builds a new robot, but this year they used last year’s winning model as a base and made improvements. The team improved the robot’s mining capabilities, upgraded its autonomy programming and algorithms, and redesigned it so it weighed less.
The Alabama Astrobiotics team is made up of 40 students from the University of Alabama and Shelton State Community College and is sponsored by Dr. Kenneth Ricks from the University of Alabama and Renea Randle, mathematics instructor at Shelton State.