West Point cadets take their autonomous robot to NASA

By Army Astrobotics Team - July 27, 2022
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Army Astrobotics, West Point’s first lunar robotics team, secured a slot as a top-48 team in the NASA LUNABOTICS Robotic Mining Competition. As part of the honor, the team traveled to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Florida, in May to put their robot, “Pathfinder,” to the test. 

NASA’s new Artemis program aims to send astronauts to the moon again in the late 2020s. However, unlike the Apollo missions nearly 50 years ago, NASA hopes to build a sustained presence on the lunar surface. Critical to this mission is the development of reliable, efficient and affordable robotic mining systems — capable of gathering lunar ice necessary to produce liquid water and rocket fuels.

“By working with NASA, I love that we can hone our leadership skills and learn more about other engineering disciplines,” team captain and Class of 2023 Cadet Patrick McGurrin said, “all while serving NASA’s goals to return to the moon.”

The LUNABOTICS Robotic Mining Competition is a national collegiate competition that challenges teams to design, build and demonstrate their lunar mining systems within various point-associated constraints. These parameters include size, weight, power consumption, bandwidth usage, mining capacity and autonomous capability — all key considerations for NASA mission planning. 

This year, over 60 teams submitted project proposals to NASA, with only the top 48 moving on to compete at Kennedy Space Center. Once there, teams put their systems to the test in a nearly 190-square-foot lunar regolith arena filled with craters, mounds and rocks meant to inhibit robots’ movement.

The West Point team had two scored attempts (each 15 minutes long) to navigate the simulated lunar terrain, mine as much gravel (simulating ice) as possible, and deliver it to a designated collection point. During these attempts, the team found success maneuvering through the fine lunar dust using their unprecedented cloth-wheel design.

In the separate “Mission Control” room, Class of 2023 Cadet Daniel Chung and Class of 2025 Cadet Garrett Vowinkel controlled the robot — simulating how operators may remotely control robots on the Moon or Mars. 

Chung, the programming sub-team lead, worked closely throughout the year with Vowinkel, a rising sophomore computer science major. The two cadets collaborated in Mission Control to ensure the robot traversed the rough terrain smoothly. 

Using a camera positioned over the lunar arena, Vowinkel surveyed the terrain and guided Chung as he drove the robot using the computer and video-game remote.

  Despite the wide view of the overhead camera, the cadets sometimes found identifying subtle terrain features difficult — a common challenge they discovered.

When not competing, cadets had the opportunity to interact with nearly 20 other teams, which exposed them to many other challenge approaches. 

“My experience at Kennedy Space Center was extremely insightful. It allowed me to meet other teams from around the country and learn more about their unique solutions to our common engineering challenge,” Chung said. 

Through independent study, after-class meetings and travel to Kennedy Space Center, the LUNABOTICS Robotic Mining Competition has provided cadets with an outlet to put their leadership, engineering and project management skills to the test in a competitive, intercollegiate setting. 

Follow along with the team at @army_astrobotics on Instagram.

(Editorʼs note: Learn more about the NASA competition at https://www.nasa.gov/offices/education/centers/kennedy/technology/nasar…. Learn more about research opportunities at West Point at http://bit.ly/WP_Research.)