Montana Tech Places 7th at NASA Robotic Mining Competition

A team from Montana Tech competed in the 6th annual NASA Robotic Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida this month. The competition was for university-level students to design and build a mining robot that would traverse the simulated Martian chaotic terrain. The mining robot must then excavates the basaltic regolith simulant (called Black Point-1 or BP-1) and the ice simulant (gravel) and return the excavated mass for deposit into the collector bin to simulate an off-world, in-situ resource mining mission. The complexities of the challenge included the abrasive characteristics of the basaltic regolith simulant, the weight and size limitations of the mining robot and the ability to tele-operate it from a remote Mission Control Center. The On-Site Mining category required teams to consider a number of design and operation factors such as dust tolerance and dust projection, communications, vehicle mass, energy/power required, and autonomy.

NASA directly benefits from the competition by encouraging the development of innovative robotic excavation concepts from universities which may result in clever ideas and solutions which could be applied to an actual excavation device and/or payload retrieval mission. The unique physical properties of basaltic regolith and the reduced 3/8th of Earth gravity make excavation a difficult technical challenge. Advances in Martian mining have the potential to significantly contribute to our nation’s space vision and NASA space exploration operations.

The Montana Tech team consisted of students who are majoring in fields including metallurgy, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and computer science. Their advisor is Dr. Bryce Hill, an assistant professor in the electrical engineering department. Team members who traveled to Florida were: Xanthius Tyson, Lee Christenson, Patrick Cote, Tyler Fricks, Robin J. Hallett, Tyler Holliday, Tanner Holwick, Joshua Olaf Lee, William Leishman, Benjamin Stuart Rathman, Mack Sutherland, Luke Suttey, Eric Anderson, Jonathan Lann, and Zackary Stewart. Other team members who were unable to make the trip: Ross P. Mitchell, Charles Connor Rawlins, Abhimanyu Nath, Dominique V Watson, and Nathaniel Loomis.

The competition began on Wednesday, May 18. During the competition, Montana Tech competed against 44 other schools. The team’s robot, Switchback, dug and dumped a total of 31 kg of simulated Martian soil. “The team was excited by this, but even more excited because they were able to fill the robot with material a second time, but failed to unload the material in time,” noted Bryce Hill, advisor to the club and faculty member in the Electrical Engineering department at Montana Tech.

According to Hill, “The team was happy to have two successful runs depositing over 30kg of material on each run. They were more excited to find out that they dug deep enough to reach the bottom of the arena. One team member noticed a part of the robot had broken only moments before the second run. He didn’t mention the break to anyone as there wasn’t time to fix it at the last minute. The robot’s drive belt system (the part that had broken) did stall during dumping; however, it seems that the heat due to friction of the broken part caused enough expansion to re-engage the belt and it continued to dump successfully.”

“The NASA Robotic Mining Competition was extremely challenging,” noted Zackary Stewart, president of the Montana Tech Robotic Mining Team. “This is Montana Tech's best year ever with our largest team of students ranging from freshmen to seniors. Every team member helped design and build the robot. Our team worked fluidly allowing us to create a design that mined more than double the amount of regolith than last year’s design.”

The Montana Tech team was able to dig to the bottom of the arena. Other teams have reportedly hit the bottom of the arena, but this disabled their robot. Montana Tech is the first team to be able to reach the bottom of the arena and successfully dump the load. This will allow for the ability in future competition to dig the deeper material that scores more points in the digging competition.

The Montana Tech team placed 7th in total amount mined this year when compared to the 24 teams who were able to mine as little as 0.1 kg of material. Hill added, “The innovation shown by Negus gives our team new hope for doing even better next year.”

Stewart added, “We managed to collect a commendable amount of icy regolith, astronauts' water source; however, we were unable to transport the icy regolith to the bin due to minor technical difficulties that will be addressed before competition next year. Our success and accomplishments were noticed by the judges from NASA along with Catepillar and various other competition sponsors. I thank god that I was blessed with an amazing team this year, and we are already working on design improvements for next year. All our team members intellect, unwavering perseverance, and methodical time and stress management techniques fall nothing short of amazing. Each member is an outstanding Oredigger and will be very successful engineers.”

For more information, please contact Bryce Hill at 406-496-4752.