Busy beneath the McConnell cafeteria is McGill’s LunarEx robotics team’s lab, where the team has been working hard for the past year to construct a robot to compete in an international competition sponsored by NASA. Through this ‘lunabotics’ (moon-related robots) mining competition, NASA aims to increase interest in robotics and engineering science, by giving engineers a goal around which they can construct a robot.
The premise of LunarEx is to determine a method for mining substances on the moon, which could then be used as building material through 3D printing. This concept is futuristic, but it is based on the possibility of scientists building a space station on the moon. In order to create the space station, you need building materials; and this is where lunabotics comes in.
The engineers are responsible for designing a robot that can compete against others in an obstacle course to mine lunar ‘regolith’—a reproduction of the rock that is supposed to be found on the moon. The robots must start in a random position in a lunapit, navigate across obstacles found on the moon, and mine as much lunar regolith as possible on the other side, before dumping it into a bucket. The robots must do all of this within a time limit.
Despite having a team for the past four years, McGill will show by far its strongest—and largest—team this May at the weeklong competition in Orlando, Florida at the Kennedy Space Center, after facing challenges in previous years.
“The first couple years, it was really small, maybe 10 people, and they made it to the competition those years; but one year they shipped the robot and it didn’t make it. Another year they didn’t finish [the robot] in time,” mechanical engineering student and lead of a LunarEx mechanical subteam Mike King explained. “This year, we tried to turn it around. We did a lot of recruiting to increase interest in [the team]. We have 50 people that officially signed up, and right now, there are about 40 very committed members—that’s pretty big for a team. And so, we have much better organization, as well as a team leader who does project management, organizes meetings, and pushes everyone to do their work.”
The engineers are responsible for designing a robot that meets an extensive list of requirements, many of which are related to the fact that this robot will hypothetically be mining on the moon.
“There is a crazy long list of constraints [in terms of] what you can use,” King said. “[The Kennedy Space Center] is obviously not the moon, but you want to design it as if it were. You can’t use sound, or air, or anything for cooling, for example, because there is no atmosphere.”
Although the robot cannot be designed for zero gravity or temperature changes, there is still a heavy set of restrictions placed on the engineers in terms of the design, such as weight and data transmission limits. The engineers are also responsible for social outreach.
“There is a whole point system. If you are overweight, you lose points; if you transmit less data, you get more points. Outside of the design of the robot, there are social media points, and outreach points. So if you go talk to schools about your project, you get points. Having a website, a Facebook, a Twitter … they want advertising because they are trying to spread interest in robotics,” King explained.
To best handle this point system, McGill’s team is focusing on collecting the most lunar regolith. It’s robot’s design is essentially a small digging mechanism (like a small screw) on the front with a giant bucket behind it. The bucket is horizontal when it’s digging, but when backed up to the bin where it empties, it dumps its contents more like a dump truck. The team is currently testing their machine at the Canadian Space Agency in their rover pit, which is where the Curiosity Mars Rover was tested.
For most of the engineers, this competition provides an opportunity to apply their learning in a more practical setting. As most engineering courses at McGill are heavily theory-based, students rarely get the chance to bring a machine to life by designing it on a computer, and then putting it together.
“I realized that McGill’s engineering program is very analytical, so doing something like this is very important for an engineer who wants to go into the field, and do more hands on stuff,” said King. “It’s basically as good as an internship, where you are actually learning about the team structure, doing everything—from design to ordering materials and assembly. I realized that this was so important, and that I had to do something like this.”
The outreach aspect of the competition has also provided some surprising experiences. The team got in touch with St. Georges School to teach the kids more about their designs and the opportunities in robotics. However, they were astounded at the wealth of knowledge these children had.
“[We spoke with] seventh and eighth graders [who] were building their own go-carts from scratch. It was really cool to see how interested they were, and how much they knew. We expected to teach them, but they ended up teaching us,” King said.
LunarEx takes up as much or more than a normal course would for an average student, but King encourages other engineering students to take advantage of this amazing opportunity at McGill.
“Any engineer who hasn’t done an internship yet or even to get just a more hands on experience [should get involved], because your classes wont give you this experience.”