IRIS Takes Systems Engineering Approach in Lunabotics Competition


Susan Mumm, Media Specialist

2014 IRIS Team
2014 IRIS Team
2014 IRIS Team
With design changes that emphasized a systems engineering approach, the Illinois Robotics in Space (IRIS) team had their best year ever in the 2014 NASA Robotic Mining Competition.

Formerly known as NASA Lunabotics, the competition held in May at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center encourages forward thinking in future design concepts for autonomous mining robots. NASA proposes expanding space exploration beyond Low Earth Orbit by building a permanent station elsewhere in the Solar System. Possible locations include the Moon, Mars or an asteroid. Mining onsite is desirable for a permanent base, and the competition challenges university-level teams to design robots to perform this task.

Robots are required to navigate around obstacles and uneven simulated Martian terrain, reach the mining area, collect at least 10 kilograms of regolith, and return to the starting area to dump the regolith in a designated bin. Judging is based on the amount of regolith collected, and how well the design minimizes power and data transfers between the robot and Mission control. Autonomous control garners additional points. In addition to competing in on-site mining, teams are evaluated throughout the year on a Systems Engineering Paper, an Educational Outreach Report, and various other requirements.

Competing annually since 2009, IRIS made changes this year to optimize the robot’s efficiency, and garnered third place for the Systems Engineering Paper.

“The Mechanical Team proposed a simple design that aimed to minimize necessary machining and to facilitate the integration process,” according to Aerospace Engineering at Illinois junior Adana Pappas, IRIS president and the project’s manager.

“This design combined the collecting, storage and dumping systems all in one bin that would be raised and lowered by two linear actuators on the side of the bin,” she continued. “Now built, the bin would be held several centimeters above the ground while traversing obstacles and then lowered about one centimeter beneath the surface of the regolith. The flat edge of the bottom of the bin would act as a scraper, pushing regolith into position to be moved to the storage area by a revolving blade mechanism. Finally, when ready, the entire bin would be lifted up in order to dump the regolith.”

“This design was ideal because it allowed (the IRIS robot) to continue moving while collecting regolith, thus maximizing efficiency in the allotted 10 minutes. Additionally, it minimized moving parts of the robot so troubleshooting, wiring and supplying power were somewhat simplified.”

IRIS members built the robot using machines in the Engineering Student Projects Laboratory (ESPL), the Digital Computer Laboratory (DCL) and the Ford Rapid Prototyping Laboratory. Pappas said team members also used the AE Machine Shop for repairs and machining.

Judges and on-site mining competitors admired IRIS’s concept. “However, due to critical damage sustained during a test at the competition, the team was set back significantly. While still able to compete in both runs, we were unable to implement full autonomous control or successfully dump regolith,” Pappas said.

IRIS members are not discouraged. “We have already begun making plans for next year’s robot,” Pappas said. Team members were:

  • Systems Engineer, Dayne Rogers (AE senior)  
  • Mechanical Team Lead, Alexander Case (AE sophomore)
  • Autonomous Team Lead, Aneeq Zaman (Mechanical Science and Engineering graduate student)
  • Electrical Team Lead, Amrutha Vasili (Electrical Engineering junior)  
  • President/Project Manager, Adana Pappas (AE junior)  
  • Peter Grega (AE junior)
  • Tony De Roo (EE senior)
  • Steven Macenski (AE freshman)
  • Abishek Krishnamoorthy (Computer Engineering junior)  
  • Cassandra Dickey (AE freshman)  
  • Zhongzhu Guo (EE junior)