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One small step for engineering students, one giant leap for UTPA
By Jennifer Berghom, Public Affairs Representative
Posted: 06/11/2012
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Four mechanical engineering students from The University of Texas-Pan American embarked on a new frontier last month when they competed in NASA's Third Annual Lunabotics Mining Competition.


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Four UTPA mechanical engineering students were the first group from the University to compete in NASA's third annual Lunabotics Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, which was held May 21-26, 2012. Pictured from left to right are UTPA team members Hilario Cortez, Roberto Guerrero, Adrian Casillas, Edgar Vela and Janet Gobaira from the Kennedy Space Center Chief Engineers Office, who was the team's escort for the second run of the competition. Cortez, Guerrero and Vela graduated in May 2012; Casillas will graduate in August.

Robert Guerrero, Edgar Vela and Hilario Cortez -- who graduated this spring -- and Adrian Casillas -- who will graduate in August -- were the first ones from UT Pan American to vie against teams from more than 50 other institutions from all over the world. The competition was held May 21-26 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida.

For the competition, teams were required to design and build remotely controlled excavating robots, called lunabots, with which to collect as much lunar soil, also known as regolith, as they could within a specified amount of time.

"I feel we did pretty well considering our lunabot actually functioned and ... maybe half or so (of the other lunabots) didn't even move," Guerrero said. "And there were some teams that this was the third year their university (competed)."

UTPA team members said they began working on the lunabot last school year as part of their senior design class. Many times the quartet would begin its task around 9 a.m. and stay until 1 a.m. toiling on the project.

The group members said the most challenging parts were creating the electrical components of the machine, since they were all mechanical engineering majors. But the students quickly learned the electrical system required to operate the lunabot. Their faculty adviser, Dr. Bob Jones, professor of mechanical engineering at UTPA, said he was impressed with his students' ability to acquire new skills in such a short time to develop their robot.

"They really demonstrated their ability to teach themselves something new, which I think is one of the things we want for all of our graduates, that they can recognize a problem and acquire the skills they need, because undergraduate education cannot give you everything you need, but it can teach you, hopefully, to be able to learn," Jones said. "We're particularly proud of the fact that they were MEs (mechanical engineering students) but they did a project that was very heavily dependent on electrical engineering skills."

Jones said faculty members from The University of Alabama, Iowa State University -- which won first and second place overall in the competition -- and John Brown University in Arkansas, which placed among the top three in two categories, approach him and compliment the UTPA team's work on its lunabot.

"They thought we were on the right track and (I thought) we were probably just a few lines of code or an electrical problem away from making the top 15 (teams)," he said.

Though the UTPA team did not qualify for the final rounds of the competition, team members said they were grateful they had the opportunity to participate.

"We never really experienced something like this, we've never gone to an international competition where you could meet teams from other countries," Vela said. "From looking at the other teams we got new ideas for the lunabot to implement future improvements."

Jones said he plans to take more UT Pan American students to the competition next year.