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University of Alabama robotics team claims third straight victory at NASA competition


TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – For the third consecutive year, a student team at the University of Alabama placed first at a NASA robotics contest.

Alabama Astrobotics took the top prize at the NASA Robotic Mining Competition, besting student teams from 45 other institutions in the challenge to build a robot capable of navigating and excavating simulated Martian soil, or regolith.

“Winning the NASA Robotic Mining Competition for a third straight year is amazing and humbling,” said team lead Joseph Kabalin, a recent mechanical engineering graduate from Loveland, Ohio. “Our team knows how hard it is to get here and how much work it takes. It was truly a team effort.”

The team has more than 60 students from across eight disciplines, including engineering and computer science, and it is the only team to win more than once in the contest’s eight years, placing first four times in 2012, 2015, 2016 and this year.

Alabama Astrobotics won the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence as the top overall team in 2017.

The teams competed at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

“I am very proud of the team members,” said Dr. Kenneth Ricks, team adviser and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering. “They bought in to our process, put their individual needs aside for the good of the team, and dedicated themselves to excellence in every category, which was recognized by the competition judges.”

NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars at “Rocknest,” the spot in Gale Crater where the mission’s first scoop sampling took place. Four scoop scars can be seen in the regolith in front of the rover. A fifth scoop was collected later. The NASA Robotic Mining Competition focuses on related regolith digging operations. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS)

Robots are judged on how much regolith they can dig and deposit into bins as well as their ability to operate on their own, or autonomously. This year, Alabama Astrobotics collected a record amount of regolith, and the robot was the first ever to complete its tasks fully autonomously.

The team placed first in five of nine categories that included mining, autonomy, technical presentation, effective use of communication with the robot and outreach project. Alabama Astrobotics placed in the top three of every category, racking up the most points in the contest’s history. In all, the students won $10,000 for use on next year’s robot.

The team designed and built a new robot, but stuck with the approach that netted the top prize the past two years. The students improved some of the robot’s mining capabilities, making it lighter and upgrading its ability to operate autonomously, Kabalin said.

The robot is called MARTE 2017, which stands for the Modular Autonomous Robotic Terrestrial Excavator 2017, and kept the bucket ladder excavator and an offloading conveyor belt. It also continued to use lidar sensors to scan in 3-D using 16 lasers to measure distance and determine an object’s position. The sensors are a sort of radar that use light instead of sound.

This year the team installed an electronic device called an inertial measurement unit to help make the autonomy more reliable.

The technology concepts developed by the collegiate teams for this competition could be used to mine resources on other planets, according to NASA.

The team received funding from the Alabama Space Grant Consortium, NASA, Dynetics, Fitz-Thors Engineering, Crank N Chrome, Ion Motion Control, Trailer Store Plus, SolidWorks and the University of Alabama.

This story originally published on Alabama NewsCenter.

Adam Jones for University of Alabama | © 2017,

© 2017, City Media LLC. All Rights Reserved.

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