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October 19, 2009

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The Worcester Polytechnic Institute-sponsored team Paul's Robotics took home first place last weekend at NASA's 2009 Regolith (moondust) Excavation Challenge, beating out 22 other teams of professional engineers, and college, university, and high school students from across the country, for the $500,000 top prize. The competition was held Oct. 17-18, 2009 at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., and was part of NASA's Centennial Challenges program, which exists to help inspire innovative solutions to technical challenges in the aerospace industry.

The victorious team – made up of WPI faculty, staff, students, and alumni -- is led by Paul Ventimiglia, a WPI robotics engineering major and head of Worcester-based Paul's Robotics. Ventimiglia and his team designed, built, and programmed the robot, which is known as "Moonraker 2.0."

"We're excited that the machine did what we designed it to do," Ventimiglia told New Scientist magazine.

Ventimiglia's team consists of Mike Ciaraldi, professor of practice in WPI's Computer Science Department; Colleen Shaver BS '04, MS '08, manager of robotics initiatives at WPI; Brian Loveland '07; Jennifer Flynn '04; and Marc DeVidts, a software developer from Miami, Fla., who is the team's only non-WPI-affiliated member. WPI is the team's primary sponsor.

The impetus for the Regolith Excavation Challenge was NASA's quest for new ideas for excavation techniques that do not require excessively heavy machines or large amounts of power. The competition called for teams to design and build robotic machines to excavate simulated lunar soil (regolith), a function that will be an important part of any construction projects or processing of natural resources on the Moon. Specifically, the robots had to navigate around a moon-like surface, collect regolith, and deliver it to a collection bin. To qualify for a prize, a robot had to dig up and dump at least 150 kg of regolith within a 30-minute period. The teams that boasted the largest loads would claim the three cash prizes: $500,000 for first place, $150,000 for second place, and $100,000 for third place. Paul's Robotics won the competition by collecting and dumping 439 kg of regolith.

"This was a landslide victory; it’s a wonderful outcome," said Kenneth Stafford, adjunct assistant professor, director of WPI's robotics resource center, and Ventimiglia's faculty advisor. "Moonraker 2.0 is an excellent, excellent engineering project."

Moonraker 2.0 features a large number of scoops that constantly rotate to collect the lunar soil. Once the robot is full, the team navigates it to the collection bin and deposits the regolith by raising the collector arm. Per NASA guidelines, Moonraker 2.0 is a battery-operated robot weighing less than 80 kg that fits fit within a 1.3 meter cylinder; it also employs only technology that could be used on the moon.

"I'm very excited that we have a winner this year," Greg Schmidt, deputy director of NASA's Lunar Science Institute in Moffett Field, told New Scientist. "The fact that it's taken three years shows what a difficult job it is."

  • To learn more about the team, visit Paul's Robotics website or follow on Twitter.
  • Read about the win on New Scientist's website.
  • To learn more about WPI's robotics engineering program, visit the department's website.