Robotics Teams Featuring WPI Students, Alumni Sweep Top 3 Prizes in 2009 NASA Lunar Excavation Challenge

Undergraduate Robotics Engineering Major Leads Group of WPI Faculty, Staff, Alumni to First-Place, $500,000 Victory
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October 21, 2009

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WORCESTER, Mass.Paul Ventimiglia, an undergraduate robotics engineering major at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), led his team, Paul's Robotics, to a first-place, $500,000 victory at NASA's 2009 Regolith (moondust) Excavation Challenge. The competition was held Oct. 17-18, 2009, at the NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., and was part of NASA's Centennial Challenges, a program designed to inspire innovative solutions to technical challenges in the aerospace industry. Paul's Robotics beat out 22 other teams of professional engineers and college and high school students from across the country to earn the top honor. The second and third-place teams also featured WPI alumni.

"We're beyond excited," said Ventimiglia, who hails from Wayne, N.J. "This was a significant team effort, and it was incredibly gratifying to see that our preparation met the challenges of this competition head-on. We faced outstanding competitors, and we triumphed. It's the greatest feeling in the world."

WPI President and CEO Dennis D. Berkey noted that the WPI community is proud of Ventimiglia and his team’s inspiring achievement. "Paul personifies so many valuable aspects of the WPI education. He is a team leader, an innovator, and a creative problem-solver. We are also proud of the WPI alumni, Aaron Shumate and Robert Sweeney, who were on the other two winning teams. Clearly, WPI’s presence on all three winning teams is evidence that WPI is among the nation's leaders in robotics engineering."

The Paul’s Robotics team – spearheaded by 22-year-old Ventimiglia – designed, built, and programmed the robot, which is known as "Moonraker 2.0." Members of the team include: Mike Ciaraldi, professor of practice in WPI's Computer Science Department; Colleen Shaver BS '04, MS '08, WPI’s manager of robotics initiatives; Brian Loveland '07; Jennifer Flynn '04; and Marc DeVidts, a Miami-based software developer, who is the team's only non-WPI-affiliated member. WPI is the team’s chief sponsor, but Paul’s Robotics also received support from two local businesses (Barnstorn Cycles and Hydro-cutter) as well as the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' New England chapter.

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, for NASA, 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 (330 lbs) of regolith within a 30-minute period. Paul’s Robotics won the competition by lifting and dumping 439.7 kg (967 lbs) of regolith. Runners-up excavated 270 and 264 kg (595 and 580 lbs), respectively.

In remarks before the National Association of Investment Companies on Oct. 20, 2009, in Washington, D.C., NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, "… One of my greatest challenges — the job I was given by the President — is to lead our NASA team in inspiring the next generation of Americans to once again become interested in math, science, engineering, and technology so that our nation can maintain its technological leadership in the world.

"Paul's team did not win by a nose, say by 1 or 2 percent," Bolden noted. "Paul’s team moved 84 percent more Moon dirt than the second place team."

Terra Engineering of Gardena, Calif., was awarded the second-place prize of $150,000, and Team Braundo of Rancho Palos Verde, Calif., took third place with a $100,000 prize. Both runner-up teams had WPI alumni representation; Aaron C. Shumate (1998) and Robert J. Sweeney (2005) are members of the second-place Terra Engineering team and the third-place Team Braundo. 

"Paul’s Robotics win 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. This team has much to be proud of, as does WPI."

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 (176 lbs) that fits within a 1.3 meter cylinder; it also only employs technology that could be used on the moon.

"It's really encouraging that we saw three teams achieve the minimum requirements and shows that innovation is not only alive but growing," said Lynn Baroff, executive director of the California Space Education and Workforce Institute, who lead the panel of judges. "It's really great that through this competition NASA is actively seeking to recognize citizen inventors from across the nation whose ideas may one day contribute to space exploration." 

This is the first time in the competition's three-year history that any team qualified for a cash prize, the largest NASA has awarded to date. Regolith is difficult to dig because its dust particles tend to stick together. Judges recognized that the winning teams achieved real technical accomplishments because the whole robotic system had to be sturdy enough to scoop moon dirt and powerful enough to move through the dust while still meeting the weight requirements.

"It was an incredibly tough competition, and teams came up with fantastic ideas, some of which might find use in future missions to the moon," said Greg Schmidt, deputy director of the NASA Lunar Science Institute at Ames. "It's great to have a winner this year. The biggest win is getting so many talented young people involved in NASA's mission of exploration."

Since fall 2007, WPI has offered the nation's first bachelor's degree program in robotics engineering, and in 2009 began offering a new master's-level robotics program. These majors are designed to prepare a new generation of engineers with the skills and imagination to develop intelligent machines that go beyond today's reality. On Nov. 7 and 8, WPI will host the inaugural Robotics Innovation Competition and Conference, which will challenge college students to engineer innovative robotics solutions to real-world problems. Among other robotics competitions, WPI also hosts the annual Savage Soccer tournament (which will be held Nov. 14, 2009); RoboNautica, the official state championship tournament of FIRST LEGO League, which showcases the talents of hundreds of children ages 9-14 from across Massachusetts and the Northeast (Dec. 19, 2009); WPI FRC Regional, an official tournament for FIRST high school teams (March 11-13, 2010); and BattleCry@WPI, one of the most popular national tournaments for high schools robotics teams  (May 7-8, 2010).

A graduate of the Delbarton School in Morristown, N.J., Ventimiglia noted: "I would tell young robotics enthusiasts considering colleges that WPI is a place where they can not only learn in the classroom, but they can also take their imagination and technical skills into the lab and actually put them into practice to create an exciting project that has the opportunity to make a difference, whether it’s on Earth or on the Moon."