UA Robotics Team Competing in NASA Challenge

  • September 1st, 2016
Members of Alabama Astrobotics, including Calebe Leslie, front left, and Joshua Yarbough, middle, at the NASA Sample Return Robot Challenge in Worcester, Massachusetts, in June. Photo courtesy of NASA.

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – A team of University of Alabama students compete this weekend in one of NASA’s biggest contests, one of only two collegiate teams to make the final round and vie for a share of a more than $1 million prize.

Alabama Astrobotics, a group of engineering and computer science students who participate in NASA-sponsored contests, is one of seven teams competing in NASA’s Sample Return Robot Challenge held on the campus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts. The three day contest concludes with an awards ceremony and press conference on Sept. 6.

In this final round of the challenge, teams have up to two hours each to locate as many as 10 unknown samples that vary in size, shape, location and difficulty. The samples are classified as easy, intermediate and hard and are assigned corresponding point values. One team could win the entire prize purse, or multiple teams could share a percentage of the $1.36 million prize.

Alabama Astrobotics qualified for the final round of the contest in June by finishing level one at WPI and winning $6,000. Only five of the 18 teams of citizen inventors, from universities to families to small businesses, who competed in the challenge this year advanced to the final round. In the contest’s five-year history, only seven teams have made it this far, including the UA students.

“The secret to success is our students. They work hard. They are talented. They are dedicated,” said Dr. Kenneth Ricks, UA associate professor of electrical and computer engineering and team adviser. “It is important to them, and they get support from the University in many forms.”

Joe Kabalin, a senior in mechanical engineering from Cincinnati, Ohio, is team lead for Alabama Astrobitcs this year, and said most team members had internships or were away from Tuscaloosa over the summer, meaning much of the work prepping for the contest has been done since students returned for the fall semester. Still, the hard work they put in between classes is invaluable experience, he said.

“We are learning every day how to do new things,” Kabalin said. “We take what we learn in class and apply it in a practical way.”

The Sample Return Robot Challenge, part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges Program, aims to encourage innovation in robotics technologies relevant to space exploration and broader applications that benefit life on Earth. This event brings together tech-savvy citizens, entrepreneurs, educators and students to demonstrate robots that can locate and collect geologic samples from a wide and varied landscape without human control and within a specified time.

Alabama Astrobotics is made up of about 40 students from UA and Shelton State Community College and is advised by Ricks and Renea Randle, mathematics instructor at Shelton State.

Earlier this year, the team won another contest, the NASA Robotic Mining Competition, for the third time, and became the only team to place first in consecutive years in the contest’s seven-year history.

The team received funding from the Alabama Space Grant Consortium, NASA, Dynetics, Fitz-Thors Engineering, the UA College of Engineering, and the UA Student Government Association.


Adam Jones, engineering public relations, 205/348-6444,

The University of Alabama, part of The University of Alabama System, is the state’s flagship university. UA shapes a better world through its teaching, research and service. With a global reputation for excellence, UA provides an inclusive, forward-thinking environment and nearly 200 degree programs on a beautiful, student-centered campus. A leader in cutting-edge research, UA advances discovery, creative inquiry and knowledge through more than 30 research centers. As the state’s largest higher education institution, UA drives economic growth in Alabama and beyond.