College of DuPage was one of only two community colleges invited to participate in the 2015 NASA Robotic Mining Competition held at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Click here to view photos of the team preparing the robot for the competition. Click here to view an early test video of the team’s robot.

Earlier this year, the team was awarded Best Design at the Jerry Sanders Creative Design Competition.

“Competitions like this one are a fantastic opportunity for our students to get unmatched hands-on experience that mimics a real-life design-build project,” said Engineering Club advisor and COD Engineering instructor Scott Banjavcic. “The teamwork, time management and real world skills gained by the students during this process are incredible and we are proud of their performance at the competition. We look forward to see what they can accomplish in the future.”

Members of the Engineering Club who participated in this year’s NASA competition included team co-captains Tom Beardsley, Wheaton, Mechanical/Electrical Engineering and John Volmer, Downers Grove, Manufacturing Engineering Technology, as well as Christian Brown, Wheaton, Mechanical Engineering; Maxwel Chichon, Bloomingdale, Industrial Engineering; Sam Ciucci, Woodridge, Computer Science;Paul Haynes, Lombard, Electrical Engineering; Nathan Hinz, Westmont, Mechanical Engineering; Jenny Kaeppel, Naperville, Civil Engineering; Edie Kocher-Cowan, Lisle, Mechanical Engineering;Laura Kristie, Westchester, Computer Science, Westchester;Matthew Rapnikas, Naperville, Mechanical Engineering; Donquis Spalding, Brandon, Mississippi, Welding/Manufacturing; Alec Steinkraus, Plainfield, Computer Science; Scott Walters, Naperville, Engineering; and Devon Weaver, Naperville, Mechanical Engineering.

This year’s NASA Robotic Mining Competition included competitors from 36 schools across the U.S. Geared toward undergraduate and graduate student teams, the competition required teams to design and build a mining robot that could navigate a simulated Martian terrain, excavate as much simulated Martian regolith and gravel as possible, and deposit the material into a collection bin within 10 minutes. Scoring included a number of factors such as autonomy, communications, dust tolerance and projection, power requirements, and vehicle mass. In addition, teams were required to submit an in-depth systems engineering report and a written description of engineering-related outreach undertaken by students.

In addition to tackling the simulated Martian soil, the students used their time at the competition to network with other participants and corporate sponsors, tour the Kennedy Space Center, meet high-ranking NASA officials, and speak with NASA engineers who have worked on Apollo and Space Shuttle missions.

Team co-captain Tom Beardsley said that while the robot didn’t place high in this year’s competition, the overall project was a tremendous success.

“The competition component is fun, but the real value of a project like this is the invaluable experience working as a team on an engineering project that is similar to something we would do in the business world,” Beardsley said. “As a team leader, I had the rare opportunity to help manage the entire project from start to finish – developing schedules, budgets, leading design, managing personnel, assigning tasks and deadlines – things a project manager does in the real world. For me, this project was an incredible opportunity to develop the teamwork and managing skills I will need in my future career.”

Beardsley has just completed COD’s Engineering Pathways program and will transfer to UIUC this fall 2015 to complete his bachelor’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. He emphasized the importance of the multidisciplinary nature of the NASA Robotic Mining Competition project and emphasized the impact groups such as the Robotics Team and the Engineering Club have had on his educational experience at COD

“While the classroom is important for obtaining a solid knowledge base, learning how to successfully work with and manage a team can only be acquired through experience and practice,” he said. “My work with the Robotics Team at COD has taught me more than any class alone ever could.”

First year Engineering Pathways student Edie Kocher-Cowan said the most important thing she learned during the project was the value of planning ahead and maintaining communication among team members.

“When building our robot, it paid off to be organized and plan out all of the tasks that needed to be done. We had to make sure that everyone was on the same page,” Kocher-Cowan said. “All of the teams that were successful at the competition came well-prepared and organized.”

Kocher-Cowan said that she enjoyed talking with the other teams and seeing the unique and creative designs of the competing robots. Selected to be Robotics Team leader next year, she hopes to apply what she and the team learned from this year’s competition to give them an advantage next year.

“This was our first year in the competition and we weren’t sure what to expect,” she said. “It was particularly challenging because we had to build the robot from scratch. Next year we’ll have a robot to start with and improve upon.”

Weighing in at 79 kilograms, 1 kilogram below the 80-kilogram limit, the COD Engineering Club’s robot featured a six-inch diameter auger for digging, a bin to carry and transport the payload and a conveyor belt mechanism to dump the payload into the receptacle at the competition. Remote control was achieved through a repurposed Xbox gaming console controller connected to a laptop running Robot Operating System (ROS) software. Since students were required to control the robot from a NASA mission control center out of sight of the competition area, the robot featured fore, aft and overhead video cameras to allow for navigation.

Starting the design process in fall 2014, the team hashed out the features the robot would need to perform well under the guidelines, restrictions and requirements of the competition. After using high-tech drafting software to digitally model the robot in its entirety, the team began fabrication in mid-March 2015.  

According to Engineering club advisor Banjavcic, the abundance of technical facilities and programs at COD enabled the team to be involved in every aspect of the comprehensive project.

“Very few four-year universities fabricate their own robots – they don’t have the facilities and consequently must farm the project out to contractors,” said Banjavcic. “Aside from motors and some electronic components, our robot is completely fabricated by the students. This provides our students with an unmatched multidisciplinary and holistic design-build learning experience that involves mechanical, electrical and manufacturing engineering and computer science, as well as the as well the support and cooperation of faculty and staff from several programs.”

Citing the 30 to 40 hours weekly volunteered by the students, HVACR Professor and team faculty advisor Bob Clark said that the College’s participation in the competition resulted from the work and support of many people.

“I’m proud of these students who have worked hard and invested so many hours of their free time in this project,” Clark said. “Their success is a testament to not only their hard work, but also to the rigor of our program and the necessary and forward-thinking support of our administrators and faculty.”