University of Akron engineering students travel to Florida for NASA competition

by Rachel Hagenbaugh | Reporter Published:

It stands about a foot tall, maneuvering its way around rocks and craters through a big sand box, collecting as much dust as it can to prove it has what it takes to be NASA's next project to the moon.

Meet "STACEE," the lunabot that 17 University of Akron students created to compete in NASA's Fourth Annual Lunabotics Mining Competition this week in Florida.

STACEE, short for Systematic Technical Automation Collecting External Elements, was developed as a way to collect lunar dust, which can be used to extract oxygen in the hopes that one day people will be able to live on the moon. The competition is an initiative by NASA to get ideas for creating the most efficient robot to do the job. 

Ben Chaffee, a senior mechanical engineering major from Macedonia, said he has been working on the project for four years. This is his second year as team captain. 

"(STACEE) is similar to its original design," he said. "There are three moving parts. If you keep the design simple, it's more reliable."

During the competition, 15 of the students who worked on the project this year, including Stow resident Keith Martin, Twinsburg resident Maggie Calder and Hudsonite Frandy Cador, will demonstrate the robot's ability to move through a seven-meter by four-meter course, pick up dust and transport it back to a collection bin. 

The teams are graded based on a points system, gaining points for things like collecting dust and maneuvering through the course without hitting rocks or craters, while losing points for the robot being too heavy or kicking up dust during the demonstration. 

The teams also gain points if they can get their robot to perform the demonstration without having to assist it using a controller. 

"No one's gotten a robot to work completely autonomous, but that's our goal," Chaffee said. He added the machine has sensors that enable it to avoid rocks and it can navigate small depressions.

Chaffee and his classmates will have two 10-minute chances to demonstrate STACEE's abilities.

Chaffee said the first place prize is usually a trip to NASA's testing facility and a cash prize.

Last year's University of Akron team tied pointwise with 17 other schools for first place, but were not chosen as the winner. Two years ago the university's team placed third out of 36 teams. 

Fifty schools including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Case Western Reserve University have signed up to compete this year, Chaffee said, but usually about 20 percent of the teams that sign-up cannot get their robot to work property and drop-out.

Martin, a freshman electrical engineering major, said he spent about eight hours a week working on the project during the semester, and put about 15 hours of work into STACEE during the past couple weeks to prepare for the competition. 

"The whole process was a really valuable experience," he said. "I learned a lot more than I would in a classroom. This hands-on stuff helps you retain a lot more information."

Cador, a junior biomedical engineering major, agreed that even though it was a lot of hard work, the project was very beneficial.

"I was learning all the components and being part of the team. I acquired some knowledge about mechanical and electrical engineering," he said. "I learned from my peers that I worked with. I can't wait to see how it performs."

Chaffee said the team began meeting at the end of the summer, shortly after the last competition ended.

"The hardest part for me was figuring out how to manage so many people," he said. "(The team) is twice as big as it has been in past years."

"Everyone has to be on the same page or everything goes out the window," Martin said. "It's great when everything comes together."

The NASA Lunabotics Mining Competition will take place May 22. To watch the teams compete live, visit nasa.gov/lunabotics.

Email: rhagenbaugh@recordpub.com

Phone: 330-541-9432

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