Oakton students to compete in NASA Robotic Mining Competition
(May 12, 2017) Oakton Community College students are aiming for Mars while keeping their feet firmly planted on the ground. Members of the college’s Oaktobotics team will participate in the 2017 NASA Robotic Mining Competition, scheduled May 22-26 at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.
Having finished in second place overall last year, Oakton is considered one of the teams to beat, despite working with smaller budgets—mostly donations—and a younger team without any graduate students.
The squad comprises students enrolled in an engineering independent study course taught by Angelo Gero, electronics and computer technology lecturer and team advisor. The 15 team members include Amena Ahmed of Skokie, Niles resident Sanjida Choudhury, Sean Fitzsimmons and Alex Golik of Glenview, Northbrook residents Chris Han and Daniel Kita, Szymon Mirek of Des Plaines, Declan Mulroy of Glenview, Sean Nixon of Lincolnwood, Luke Paltzer of Skokie, Stephen Rodriguez of Mount Prospect, Peter Solomon of Skokie, Jeremy Stymacks of Niles, Diana Stypula of Northbrook and the team leader, Lynette Sugatan of Niles.
The trip to the Kennedy Space Center is the culmination of more than nine months of hard work. While NASA imposes no spending cap, Oakton’s team is able to compete thanks in part to a $16,000 grant from the Oakton Educational Foundation.
“Having finished in the top 10 several times and second place last year, we felt like we had gone as far as we could with the previous robot design. This year we decided to start from scratch with an entirely new technology system,” explains Sugatan.
The NASA competition pits undergraduate and graduate students from colleges and universities in a design-build-operate contest in which each team’s remote controlled robot tries to outmaneuver the others by navigating a simulated, chaotic Martian terrain and excavating rock fragments, known as regolith. The robot that mines the most regolith in the allotted time wins. Points are also scored for the scientific presentation of the team’s technology and the use of social media to create public excitement around the competition.
“Not only are they building a robot, but they have to go out and promote their project to the college at-large and to the community,” says Gero, noting Oaktobotics has performed numerous demonstrations on campus and at libraries and K-12 schools throughout Oakton’s district. “The competition forces students to learn about engineering principles and apply those principles to a real-world—or out-of-this world—situation.”
NASA’s practical interest in hosting a robotics competition is to one day establish a human presence on Mars where mining would be important to the mission.
“NASA directly benefits from the competition by encouraging the development of innovative robotic excavation concepts from universities that may result in clever ideas and solutions that could be applied to an actual excavation device and/or payload on an ISRU mission,” says NASA spokesperson Al Feinberg. “Advances in Martian mining have the potential to significantly contribute to our nation’s space vision and NASA space exploration operations.”