Mining another national astrobotics championship

When people think of The University of Alabama's championships teams, the school's robotics team may not be the first to come to mind. But a string of victories is putting Alabama Astrobotics in the spotlight.

On May 23, Alabama Astrobotics placed first in the categories of mining, autonomy and technical presentation at this year's NASA Robotic Mining Competition (RMC) held at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Because of their victory, the group received a total of $10,000 to be used on next year's competing robot. The team has continued to be successful, winning three of the last seven RMC competitions they have competed in. 

"During our two competition runs we were able to successfully qualify by collecting 10 kilograms of Regolith, a stimulant for Martian and Moon soil," said Joe Kabalin, a team member. "Additionally, the robot operated autonomously meaning that all the tasks that the robot performed were performed without being controlled by a human driver."

The winning robot was designed to travel safely and efficiently across the rugged surface of Mars and successfully mine geological samples. Competing robots were put to the test on a simulation of the Red Planet and its harsh environment. Kablin said the team has worked about a year on this latest robot.

"I really enjoy working as a team and taking an idea for one of our robots from conception to a final product, then later seeing that robot have great success," said Joshua Yarbrough, mechanical lead specializing in the digging module of the RMC robot. "While we do not do it for the notoriety, we appreciate the recognition because it allows us to showcase the quality of Alabama's engineering program and dedication from our students."

Running on little sleep, the team's mechanical engineers set up shifts to stay up all night with the team's software programmers, helping rework the code on the robot between competition runs to maintain top functionality, said Karen Yarborough, parent of team member Joshua Yarbrough.

"[The team does] not get any special treatment, scholarships based on their team participation or special dorm rooms... They do it for the challenge and the chance to work on an interdisciplinary team," Yarborough said.

Starting in 2010 with only five students, the program has now grown to include around 45 graduate and undergraduate students across multiple fields of study including aerospace, computer, electrical and mechanical engineering, along with computer science, math and physics.

Members also participate in a variety of philanthropic endeavors with community outreach events and technology demonstrations.

The organization is directed by Kenneth Ricks, UA associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Renea Randle, mathematics instructor at Shelton State.

Kabalin said the robotics team is currently in New England for another NASA competition called Sample Return Challenge. This will be their first time competing in the event.

To keep up with the team and what they are doing next, visit their Facebook page or follow their Twitter account @UA_Astrobotics. 

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