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From FIRST Robotics to the Moon

By Steve Robbins

RobbinsYears ago, I was involved in the sensors technology segment of design engineering when I worked for Sensors Magazine and Sensors Expos. Sensors’ editor-in-chief, Barbara Goode, introduced me to Dean Kamen and FIRST Robotics, whose mission is to inspire young people’s interest in science and technology. We invited FIRST Robotics to hold demonstration competitions at our Sensors events. It was great seeing the interest in the kids, as they guided their robots in the competition area. It also engaged the minds of all the design engineers at the show. Design engineers would cheer their favorite team on as the robots competed. It was a great success.

Now, fast forward to last December, where I was attending another event, Autodesk University in Las Vegas. The event started early with Jeffrey McGrew, co-founder of design-build studio Because We Can, kicking off the keynote speech. As he introduced Edwin “E.J.” Sabathia of Moon Express Robotic Lab for Innovation (MERLIN), the music picked up and a mockup of a lunar lander started descending from the roof of the stage. E.J. is one of eight student robotics engineers and a former member of a FIRST Robotics team. He and his team were mentored by the NASA Ames Robotic Academy, and it paid off. E.J. and seven of his Moon Express team have designed a robot that will land on the moon. They are hoping to win the Google Lunar X Prize for a cool $30,000,000.

To the Moon, On a Budget
We have all heard of recent efforts to commercialize space. Space X, Orbital Science and others are leading the way. But E.J. works for a relatively small, privately held company, working on a tiny budget (in aerospace terms). Landing a robot on the lunar surface and sending back high-definition imagery is a complex challenge for a large aerospace company. Until now, it cost about as much as the gross national product of a small country to accomplish this feat. But times are changing fast.

E.J. and his team have designed twin micro-rovers that will be landed on the surface of the moon. They are named “ARTHUR” and “ROBERT” after Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein, two well-know science fiction writers. These robots are capable of capturing stereo HD images and video. They will also be able to transport a payload.

Moon Express has announced its own competition: “The Moon is ME Lunar Mining Design Challenge” (themoonisme.com) to design mining tools that the rovers can use to collect samples of lunar soil. The contest is open to anyone using Autodesk Software. Moon Express is planning on equipping one of the lunar rovers with the winner’s mining technology.

Technology Inspires
Dean Kamen was a visionary in the founding of FIRST Robotics. To inspire young people to embrace science and engineering is not an easy job. If you ask, most kids will tell you they want to be a football or basketball player. FIRST Robotics makes subjects like mathematics and science interesting. It gives students a practical application to capture their attention. It makes engineering cool. I remember the excitement in the students’ eyes at Sensors Expo when their efforts at creating a competitive robot were recognized by the design engineers on the show floor.

E.J. Sabathia is now mentoring his own FIRST Robotics team. Imagine how inspiring it must be for high school students to work with a guy that’s putting, not one, but two robotic lunar rovers on the moon!

Moon Express has completed a successful lander flight test. It is working with NASA to develop technology that will commercialize low-cost space exploration. Barney Pell, co-founder and CTO for Moon Express, has been quoted as saying: “The Moon has never been explored before from and entrepreneurial perspective. I believe the Moon may be the greatest wealth creation opportunity in history. It’s not a question of if; just who and when.” And they are doing it with an engineering team inspired and mentored by FIRST Robotics. How cool is that?

Steve Robbins is the CEO of Level 5 Communications and executive editor of DE. Send comments about this subject to de-editors@deskeng.com.

About Steve Robbins

Steve Robbins is the former co-owner and publisher of Desktop Engineering.