After winning the 2012 NASA Lunabotics Mining Competition, NASA Awarded my team and me with a trip to the 2012 Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) Conference. It was a great conference with participants from all over the world including the second human being to set foot on the moon, Dr. Buzz Aldrin. Being in an environment where asteroid mining, setting up factories on the Moon, and the logistics behind a Mars colony were not talked about in an"as if" situation but instead in a "here is how you do it" manner. It was obvious that these were highly motivated people.
Bringing our lunabot with us to Hawai'i was an ordeal in itself. Luckily we had The University of Alabama to help us construct custom shipping crates. One crate for the bucket wheel excavator module, and another crate for the base and front end loader module. The base and front end loader crate had plenty of extra room for our tools and other parts we had to bring with us.
The bucket wheel excavator module had a dedicated crate built for it. There was enough extra space for us to store all four wheels. Both crates shipped out almost two weeks before the conference.
Here are both crates in our student project building. After packing them and attaching all the necessary documentation, the delivery truck came to pick it up.
After an entire day of travel I finally arrived at the Waikoloa Beach Marriot Resort and this view.
The next day we decided to make sure that everything arrived in one piece. Thankfully the hotel let us use a conference room to store all of our equipment. Unpacking the crates was easy with their removable sides and top. After a unpacking and giving everything a visual inspection we tested the subsystems for full functionality.
With the bucket wheel excavator mated to the base, our Lunabot was ready for demonstrations. I was selected to represent out group to the media during the press conference. I know that neck ties are considered too formal by Hawaiian standards but my southern culture subconscious insisted that I wear it.
Outside of the main conference room was a great grass lawn. We brought our lunabot out onto the grass for a demonstration and photo opportunity. Our hotel was constructed on a dirt island in the middle of a very large lava flow. The contrast between the lush green vegetation around our hotel and the lava fields in the distance was very striking.
Here is a picture of the whole group that traveled and the NASA Lunabotics project coordinator Susan Sawyer.
After letting the local media take video footage of the lunabot I was interviewed by several news outlets. You can see part of one of the interviews in the "Additional Links" section at the end of this project write up.
After the press release we explored the lava fields around the hotel. We were in search of Ah-Ah but instead we found mainly Pahoehoe lava flows. We had to be very careful walking on the sharp and unstable surface.
One evening after the conference we noticed a college fair going on at our hotel. We jumped at the opportunity to bring out our lunabot and show it off to the hundreds of students passing by. Most of the students that we talked to were in either middle school or high school. We talked to many faculty advisers and parents as well.
The push for S.T.E.M learning in Hawaii was obvious with the questions posed to us by even the youngest students. They were all very interested in learning about the lunabotics competition and our lunabot. This also gave us the opportunity to briefly talk about PISCES and what we thought it meant for the state of Hawaii.
Part of our participation in the PISCES Conference was holding an open forum. Anyone could come in and talk to us about our experience in the lunabotics competition and our thoughts on topics brought up at the conference. After our forum we took the opportunity to get a photo with one of our audience members Dr. Buzz Aldrin.
Unexpectedly, we were able to spend the third day enjoying the island. Our attendance at the administrative PISCES meetings were not required and we took the opportunity to explore the area.
Jason, Logan, and I pulled out a map, talked to the concierge and decided to try to hitch hike to Waipi'o Valley on the north side of the island. We had about seven hours to get there, enjoy it, and come back. We were prepared to split up, thinking that it would be easier to hitch hike solo. Luckily we were able to stick together the entire way out and back. Here is the route we took from our hotel A to Waipi'o Valley B.
A little over an hour and four vehicle changes later we had made it. Even the view from a top the lookout was stunning.
Our final and last day, Friday, we brought our lunabot to a valley high up Mauna Kea Volcano. After reaching the visitor center we started down the long windy dirt road to our analog test site. This site is used by NASA and others as a place to test different contraptions in a location that is similar to the Moon and Mars. Here is the Planetary Analog Site Evaluation Card (PDF)from NASA on the area just down the road from where we tested. Unfortunately we were not able to receive permission to test there. The roads to reach these sites are marked "4WD Only" not only because of the terrain but also because of the altitude.
We started unloading all of our gear and staging the test site. It was very windy and cold at this valley. There was pretty steady breeze all day. The elevation change was very apparent once we started doing physical work. We had spent all week at sea level and were now stationed around 10,000ft.
The lack of trees made perception of the actual size of this valley quite hard. You can see the line of suv's parked in the center of the picture. We tried to utilize the entire valley in our testing. Some areas were softer and others more rocky.
After unpacking we started up the generators to run our backend. Our testing began with the Front End Loader (FEL) module. We decided to use up one battery cycle with it before switching to the Bucket Wheel Excavator (BWE). There was a definite difference between the BP-1 regolith simulant from our competition and the soil conditions on Mauna Kea. The test site soil was full of Dime to Quarter sized pebbles where as the BP-1 was very fine and powdery. Despite these differences the FEL module preformed well with no issues.
Here is a close up of the average soil conditions at our test site on Mauna Kea.
The below photo was taken by Curiosity Rover on the planet Mars. As you can see, there is no doubt why NASA would choose a place such as Mauna Kea for their analog testing. Visually comparing the two places shows their closeness. Notice the burn marks from the landing rockets.
Stirring up dust is one thing we can always count on doing well. We were all very happy to see our lunabot move dirt like a champ. Despite being designed for a maximum 10 minute competition runtime, the 4-5 hours of testing seemed to be no problem.
It was very hard to not often think of Curiosity during our tests.
We were a little cold but all smiles the whole day. Despite the out-of-spec challenges presented to us, our lunabot was a tremendous success.
With the first set of batteries spent we switched out to the Bucket Wheel Excavator module. Due to rule changes at the competition, we were not able to use our BWE module at the competition at all. We had only been able to demonstrate it back at UA. This configuration was the true powerhouse digger design out of all the robots at the competition. Now that we had room to breath we spun up the bucket wheels and tore up the soil. Most lunabots at the NASA competition could only dig in one direction but our dual bucket wheels could dig in any. The BWE and sweeping wheels on the base allowed us to be able to excavate in 6 different directions forward, backward, left, right, clockwise, and counter clockwise.
The screw conveyor in the bottom of the hopper worked very well in shifting all of the contents to the back of the hopper and onto the off loading conveyor belt.
Unfortunately only 6 team members were able to travel to Hawai'i but we made sure to represent the group as best we could.
Here I am posing with our two modules, the Front End Loader and Bucket Wheel Excavator.
I focused mainly on taking as much video footage as possible. Knowing that we could replay these at a later date, I made sure to try and get as much technical documentation as possible. I tried to show as much of the operation of the two modules as I could, hoping that other teams can use this information as well. Here is that footage along with some more from my incredible experience.
After our tests were complete we drove to the top of Mauna Kea to check out the optical and radio observatories.
The peak of the mountain/volcano is undeveloped and accessed by a small hiking trail. After the physical exercise during testing, I felt every step to the top.
USGS marker marking the elevation at 13,796 feet. I was standing on top of the largest mountain in the world (from base to top).
With the sun going down, temperatures dropped below freezing and the altitude and wind amplified this fact.