Paul Ventimiglia, a robotics engineering major at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) and head of Worcester-based Paul's Robotics, is leading a team of WPI faculty, staff and alumni in competition this weekend at NASA's 2009 Regolith Excavation Challenge. The event is part of NASA's Centennial Challenges program, which exists to help inspire innovative solutions to technical challenges in the aerospace industry. The competition is being held October 18-19 at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. A total of 23 teams from around the nation are competing for three cash prizes: 1st prize: $500,000, 2nd prize: $150,000, 3rd prize: $100,000.
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 calls 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 must navigate around a moon-like surface, collect regolith, and deliver it to a collection bin. To qualify for a prize, a robot must dig up and dump at least 150 kg of regolith within a 30-minute time frame. The teams that boast the largest loads will claim the three cash prizes.
Ventimiglia and his team designed, constructed, and programmed the robot, which is known as "Moonraker." The team consists of Mike Ciaraldi, professor of practice in WPI's Computer Science Department; Colleen Shaver '04, 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.
Moonraker 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 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. Moonraker is sponsored primarily by WPI.
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