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Monday, June 10, 2013

Are there any college kids who aren’t building robots to explore other planets?

David Brooks

If you want to get college students excited, certain combinations are surefire: Live music plus members of the opposite sex, for example, or free food plus more free food.

Here’s another combo that seems to work pretty well: Robots and planetary exploration. A few recent examples: ...

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If you want to get college students excited, certain combinations are surefire: Live music plus members of the opposite sex, for example, or free food plus more free food.

Here’s another combo that seems to work pretty well: Robots and planetary exploration. A few recent examples:

At UMass-Lowell, a school team called the Rover Hawks (the school mascot is the river hawk) won a NASA competition on June 6 to simulate driving a semi-autonomous vehicle on another planet.

The rover was shipped to the Johnson Space Center in Houston but was controlled by the team from the school’s new, cleverly acronymed New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center. Students had to use a commercial 4G wireless network, with a several-second delay that simulated the problem communicating with other planets.

Rovers from eight universities, chosen to participate and given $10,000 each to balance out costs, had to do such planet-exploring tasks as going up and down slopes, crossing sand pits and gravel beds, driving over rocks over certain sizes, and picking up rock samples.

That last task resonates with Rover Hawk member Mike Lunderville, a just-graduated UMass-Lowell senior who graduated from Hollis-Brookline High School in 2009. I talked to him a week ago, before the school won the competition (he’d already started a full-time job and couldn’t participate in the contest).

Lunderville got his degree in mathematics and worked on the software for the arm to help pick up rocks, which raises the question: Does it really take a math degree to reach out and grab a rock? If you’re dealing with about a semi-autonomous, remotely controlled robot arm, it might.

“I spent 5 to 30 hours a week working on the rover,” he said.

“The arm has several motors – you have to make the motors spin the way you want, for the right time, right (amount), to maneuver (the arm). It takes a significant amount of math, getting things to work properly,” said Lunderville. “The goal is to make it so you can just say ‘move the arm this way 2 inches’ – I had to write the software to make that happen.”

Meanwhile, in Durham, a UNH team called LunaCats (another sports-mascot joke from the home of the Wildcats) placed third in May in the mining category of NASA’s Lunabotics Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The Lunabotics competition featured 50 teams from universities, mostly from North America but a few from other continents, operating remote-controlled excavators to dig through simulated regolith, a general term for dirt or dirt-like substances.

“Our goal was to simplify everything,” Team captain Caleigh MacPherson told Foster’s Daily Democrat, which reported that the robot “had just four moving parts and was controlled by a netbook attached to it instead of the custom-built computer that was its brain last year.”

They called their rover the Magically Optimized Outer Space Excavator, or M.O.O.S.E. What is it with geeks and acronyms, anyway?

Yet another NASA-sponsored contest is taking place as a write this in Worcester, Mass., where WPI is hosting the Sample Return Robot challenge, which carries a $1.5 million prize. A team from Estonia is among the competitors.

Teams will “compete to demonstrate a robot can locate and retrieve geologic samples from a wide and varied terrain without human control,” says the official description. “The objective of the competition is to encourage innovations in automatic navigation and robotic manipulator technology.”

If all these contests sound similar, there’s a reason: It’s very, very, VERY difficult and expensive to send people into space, so wheeled robots are likely to do most of the heavy lifting for decades to come.

Getting college engineering/math students to think about the problems now makes it more likely that they’ll have good ideas when future projects.

So let the collegiate enthusiasm continue!

Speaking of robots, the last Nashua Science Cafe before the summer break will discuss flying robots – i.e., drones. My column next week will advance the June 19 cafe.

GraniteGeek appears Mondays in The Telegraph. David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbroks@nashuatelegraph.com. Also, follow Brooks on Twitter (@granitegeek).