UA Astrobotics Takes First Place Once Again in NASA Competition

  • July 15th, 2021

For the seventh time in nine years, The University of Alabama Astrobotics team won NASA’s Robotic Mining Competition.

A robot with four wheels and a conveyor belt for extraterrestrial digging against a wall that displays six NASA championship flags
The UA Astrobotics team’s 2021 championship robot.

“I’m very happy to have UA Astrobotics recognized by NASA as the 2021 Robotic Mining Competition: Lunabotics national champion,” Dr. Ken Ricks, electrical and computer engineering associate professor and team adviser said. “The Astrobotics team overcame many obstacles during a challenging year to represent UA and the College of Engineering in the highest manner.”

After not having a competition in 2020 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UA team returned to prominence during this year’s competition called Lunabotics, which was split into two separate challenges. Alabama Astrobotics competed virtually with 52 other teams in the Design it, Build it, Dig it Challenge.

Since there was no in-person digging component with the robot this year, NASA judged the teams in five categories, which were executive summary, project management plan, systems engineering paper, public outreach and presentation/demonstration.

UA’s team, made up of 50 active student members, won first place for their systems engineering paper, first place in outreach and second place in technical presentation/demonstration, which led to the overall grand prize — the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence.

Calvin Booth, a mechanical engineering student and mechanical team lead, was thrilled about the results in his second year on the team.

“It felt amazing to see all of the hard work our team put in get recognized,” Booth said. “Just like with any engineering project, some things go wrong and things break. Dr. Ricks has been able to guide us to create a systems engineering plan that allows for ample time to test, break, fix and test again. This cycle continues to occur throughout the year and makes our team and rover better each time.”

Preparation for this year’s competition looked different than years past because the team had to adhere to lab occupancy limitations and safety guidelines to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 infection.

“We’re not competing against other teams. We’re competing against our own internal standards. I am very proud of our team members for rising to the challenge.”

“With 50 active team members and our lab limited to only eight people at one time, we had to figure out a different way to converse,” Booth said. “We held large Zoom meetings to discuss important topics and only met in the lab when physical work had to be done.”

These changes made the team feel behind from the start. Ricks said productivity was limited because of social distancing, and organizing a schedule for the lab and setting deliverable deadlines was a struggle. Booth said they learned a lot during this time.

“Sometimes [the constraints] revealed challenges we were not used to, but that did not hold us back,” Booth said.

Ricks agreed the team worked relentlessly to rise above the difficulties they faced. His high expectations are not easy to meet, but the team is focused on improving themselves instead of worrying about the competition.

“We work hard. I ask a lot of the students. I expect them to achieve the standard that we’ve established here at UA,” Ricks said. “It’s nice to win, but we can always do better. We’re not competing against other teams. We’re competing against our own internal standards. I am very proud of our team members for rising to the challenge.”

This year marked Alabama Astrobotics sixth consecutive win, and the team will continue to strive for more in 2022

“I think the passion of our team members remains one of the top reasons that we compete at such a high level,” Booth said. “We put our hearts into this project and never back down from a challenge. Whether we’re in a pandemic or not, our team members will put everything they have into creating a competition-winning rover.”

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.