Univ. of Ala. holds national robotic mining competition

Published: May. 25, 2023 at 6:16 PM CDT
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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (WBRC) - The University of Alabama is hosting its own special kind of tournament in the field of engineering and the assignment is really out of this world.

NASA is ramping up its lunar program with the goal of sending astronauts to the moon for long durations. That’s where the robotic mining competition comes into play at the University of Alabama.

This comes down to robotics, brains and problem solving on a very deep level. The goal is figure out how to provide constant, clean water for the astronauts on the moon.

Tuning up, going over the details, making sure ‘Trey’ is in working order, all 120 pounds of him. He was created out of more than 2,000 parts.

“That’s his nickname,” said University of Alabama student Katherine Stamey.

Katherine Stamey is part of the engineering team at UA, participating in the national robotic mining competition. This is serious business for a serious cause for NASA.

“Trey is a mining robot. He has this long extension that will dig down into the earth and pull up gravel and after he pulls up the gravel he’ll pull it up into a bucket back here,” said Stamey.

Katherine Stamey’s not alone. More than 20 universities across the country are in Tuscaloosa taking part in the competition, all with their own created version of a mining robot. It is an exercise in perseverance.

“Lots of problem solving and have the mindset that things won’t always work, repeat, repeat, try something new,” said University of Nebraska junior Angeline Luther.

To put in simple terms - water and oxygen don’t exist on the moon in the form humans need. That’s why NASA is calling for smarts and brains to figure out how to do this, according to Dr. Kenny Ricks.

“What we’re doing in this case is collecting lunar soil in buried ice on the south pole of the moon and we can bring that back to the processer that is delivered to the surface of the moon as part of the lunar hardware and will process those materials into hydrogen and oxygen which you need for water and oxygen to breathe,” said Dr. Ricks, interim head of the UA Department of Electrical and Engineering.

And in order for that to happen, there needs to be mining robot to perfect the process. Who has the robot that can do the job? That’s where the competition comes in a few buildings away in a pit with lunar-like soil environment.

“Basically what NASA is doing is crowdsourcing ideas on how to collect this dirt in this ice. It’s a very difficult problem,” said Dr. Ricks.

And one students like Katherine Stamey are trying to solve more than 200,000 miles away from the moon.

The winner of the robotic mining competition will be announced Friday. The tournament is sponsored by Catepillar. The overall winner gets a $3,000 cash prize.

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