Q&A with the UMN Lunabotics team

CSE students build robots to compete in a Lunar environment

August 15, 2022

Every year, NASA poses the 'Artemis Challenge' to college teams around the country—a competition where students design and build robots to complete remote tasks and navigate space-like terrain in a simulated lunar environment. And every year, the University of Minnesota’s Lunabotics team rises to the challenge. 

Lunabotics is part of University of Minnesota Robotics and winner of the 2022 CSE Outstanding Student Group Award. The team was unable to attend the competition this year due to COVID-19 and scheduling conflicts, but they spent the year practicing their skills and preparing for next year.

We sat down with the team’s director of engineering, Alexander “Alex” Tatley, and programming leader, Jonathan Blixt, to discuss the past season and the team’s experience. Both Tatley and Blixt are computer science majors in the College of Science and Engineering on the Twin Cities campus.

What is the robot designed to do?

Alex: Every year there’s a competition to make a robot that can hypothetically go on the moon, dig up ore from the ground and sift it for different materials. There are two different parts of the competition. One is manual, where you’re driving the robot and using a big oar to look through the soil, and there is a little conveyor belt that shakes the sand to find little rocks. The second part is an autonomous mode where you program the robot to automatically do these tasks based on an algorithm or a decision tree.

How does the team operate?

Jonathan: At the start of every meeting, we update each other on what we were working on, and then we split into programming and design teams. The teams work separately, and then we bring everything back and put it all together. 

It’s about understanding engineering design processes and properly learning how to design things. Actually doing stuff is the most helpful thing and it really shows future engineers how that process works and gets them firsthand experience.

If the team didn’t attend the competition, what did you work on this year?

Alex: There was a bunch of work done to create a CAD design of a robot using SolidWorks. We also created new programming modules for the robot and updated some of the code for the motor control.

I think this was a good year for being able to build up for next year. We’ve been able to get a lot of good practice just learning some of the skills for robotics. As director of engineering this year, I want to make it a priority to get as many new members on the team as possible.  We want to get them integrated with the skills and knowledge they need in order to be as productive as they can.

What do you like about being on this team?

Alex: I really like the programming and skills that are involved with building this robot. There’s this software standardization called Robot Operating System, and it’s a language used to create packaged programs that act like a bunch of servers that communicate with each other. I’ve been able to learn a lot about that, and understanding that framework is really important when you’re looking into the future and trying to gain skills that are relevant to your field of interest.

Lunabotics won the Outstanding student group award. What makes this team special?

Alex: What makes the group special is that we work on things in a deep sense of what you’d be learning if you were going into a field like robotics. Since we also work with SolidWorks and a 3CAD system, it provides opportunities to learn that aspect if you’re a mechanical engineering major. The experience of being in a really technical, collaborative environment is really important, and I think we do that pretty well.

What advice would you give to someone looking to join a robotics team?

Alex: It’s good to recognize that robotics is a multidisciplinary field. Most likely, you’re not going to have time to understand every single aspect of a robot to its full capacity. Try the things that you’re most comfortable with first. It’s pretty important to give yourself patience when you’re learning stuff like this.

What does next year look like?

Jonathan: NASA has had the same challenge for the past five years, but in fall 2022 they’re finally releasing a new one. They haven’t announced it yet, but we’re very interested to see what it’s going to be.

Interview by Katelyn Mayne

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