The University of Alabama

Team of UA Engineering Students Win 2014 NASA Robotic Mining Contest

e University of Alabama team Astrobotics in collaboration with Shelton State Community College received the highest award, the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence, during NASA's 2014 Robotic Mining Competition awards ceremony inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Image courtesy of NASA.

The University of Alabama team in collaboration with Shelton State Community College received the highest award, the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence, during NASA’s 2014 Robotic Mining Competition awards ceremony inside the Space Shuttle Atlantis attraction at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida. Image courtesy of NASA.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – A team of students brought home a national title after winning the top prize at a NASA contest this past weekend.

Made up of students from The University of Alabama and Shelton State Community College, Alabama Astrobotics earned the most points in NASA’s Robotic Mining Competition, which challenges collegiate engineering and computer-science students to build a robot capable of navigating and excavating simulated Martian soil.

This is the fifth annual Robotic Mining Competition NASA has hosted. Made up of students from across engineering disciplines, computer science and other areas of campus, the team of UA and Shelton State students won the contest in 2012, and placed third a year ago. The team also finished fourth and sixth place in the first two years of the competition.

“The continued success of this team comes from the students,” said Dr. Kenneth Ricks, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and the team’s faculty adviser. “They understand the benefits of winning, and they know it takes hard work to realize those benefits. Lots of organizations want to win. However, few are willing to put in the work required to do so.

“The UA team did the work, trusted their plan and carried it out while representing UA in a first-class manner,” Ricks continued. “In the world of robotic mining for NASA applications, UA has the top program in the world.”

On May 23, the last day of the contest, NASA officials announced Alabama Astrobotics notched the most points in the competition, winning the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence. The team was awarded $7,750 to be used towards next year’s competition.

As part of the competition, students build robots designed to excavate simulated Martian regolith, or a layer of loose material that covers a solid rock. The robot is allowed two windows of 10 minutes to move across a small arena, through obstacles and excavate as much regolith as possible.

This year, the team focused primarily on building a completely autonomous robot. To accomplish this, the robot was equipped with laser scanners and sensors that allowed it to automatically determine its location within the competition arena and to drive around obstacles. While many teams program a path for the robot to take, Alabama Astrobotics designed the robot to make its own decisions, in real-time, on what path to take and where to dig.

The mining robot designed and built by Alabama Astrobotics rests after a competition run during the NASA Robotic Mining Competition in Florida.

The mining robot designed and built by Alabama Astrobotics rests after a competition run during the NASA Robotic Mining Competition in Florida.

In its second attempt in the arena during the contest, the team’s robot completed the first fully-autonomous run in the contest’s history, Ricks said.

“Autonomy is a big deal for NASA because, just like jobs on earth, NASA wants as much autonomy as possible to allow humans to perform higher level tasks,” Ricks said. “Giving the robot the capability to sense its environment, know where it is, plan a path to where it wants to go, and effectively implement that path around obstacles is a very difficult task, and UA is the only team in the history of the competition to do all these tasks intelligently.”

Besides the mining contest, teams were judged on an oral presentation, a written systems engineering paper, educational outreach and team spirit. Alabama Astrobotics placed third in the amount of soil mined and collected, but judges awarded the team first place for its presentation, technical paper and team spirit.

“We knew if we wanted to win, we needed to do well in all aspects of the competition,” said team lead Caleb Leslie, a graduate student in computer engineering and mathematics from Enterprise, Alabama. “Being the first team to complete this autonomous milestone was quite rewarding for a team that has sacrificed countless hours in the lab designing, building, testing, debugging and developing this robot.”

Along with Ricks, Renea Randle, mathematics instructor at Shelton State Community College, served as an adviser for the team.

Members of the team include:

  • Taylor Boyle, a sophomore in computer engineering from Hoover
  • Matthew Bries, a sophomore in computer engineering from St. Charles, Missouri
  • Michael Carswell, a graduate student in electrical engineering from Geneva
  • Brent Chester, a sophomore in electrical engineering from Scottsdale, Arizona
  • Caroline Driggers, a sophomore in early childhood special education from Birmingham
  • Andrew Faulkner, a graduate student in computer engineering from Tuscaloosa
  • John Grace, a graduate student in electrical engineering from Huntsville
  • Samuel Griffin, a sophomore in computer engineering from Vestavia Hills
  • William Hampton, a sophomore in electrical engineering from Aledo, Texas
  • Samuel Hart, a freshman in pre-engineering at Shelton State from Gallion
  • Luke Haynes, a junior in electrical engineering from Kennesaw, Georgia
  • Justin Headley, a graduate student in computer engineering from Oxford
  • Austin Holliman, a sophomore in civil engineering at Shelton State from Gordo
  • Derrill Koelz, a post-graduate student in computer engineering from Hoover
  • Richard Lawson, a junior in electrical engineering from Purvis, Mississippi
  • Caleb Leslie, a graduate student in computer engineering and mathematics from Enterprise
  • Chad Logsdon, a junior in electrical engineering from Orlando, Florida
  • Alan Mullenix, a sophomore in mathematics from Northport
  • Kyle Nelson, a freshman aerospace engineering from Corona, California
  • Evan Phillips, a freshman in electrical engineering from Shelby Township, Michigan
  • David Sandel, a graduate student in computer engineering from Dothan
  • Kellen Schroeter, a senior in aerospace engineering from West Bloomfield, Michigan
  • Rebecca Sedlak, a freshman in aerospace engineering from Montgomery
  • Mitchell Spryn, a senior in electrical engineering and physics from Williamsburg, Virginia
  • Alex Stapp, a senior in mechanical engineering from Tuscaloosa
  • Jake Webster, a sophomore in mechanical engineering from Fultondale
  • Andrew Zeller, a freshman in mechanical engineering from Greenbay, Wisconsin

The team received funding from the Alabama Space Grant Consortium, NASA, Dynetics, Insuresoft, Fitz-Thors Engineering, the UA College of Engineering, the UA Student Government Association, the UA Graduate School, Shelton State and Zoe’s Kitchen. Also, the College of Engineering’s Machine Shop and the UA 3-D Printing Lab provided support for the team.

In 1837, The University of Alabama became one of the first five universities in the nation to offer engineering classes. Today, UA’s fully accredited College of Engineering has more than 4,500 students and more than 120 faculty. In the last eight years, students in the College have been named USA Today All-USA College Academic Team members, Goldwater, Hollings, Portz, Mitchell and Truman scholars.

The University of Alabama, a student-centered research university, is experiencing significant growth in both enrollment and academic quality. This growth, which is positively impacting the campus and the state's economy, is in keeping with UA's vision to be the university of choice for the best and brightest students. UA, the state's flagship university, is an academic community united in its commitment to enhancing the quality of life for all Alabamians.

  • CONTACT: Adam Jones, engineering public relations, 205/348-6444, acjones12@eng.ua.edu
  • SOURCE: Dr. Kenneth Ricks, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, 205/348-9777, kricks@eng.ua.edu