This is a guest post by Will Pomerantz, Senior Director of Space Prizes at the X Prize Foundation.
By way of quick introduction, I am not yet a dad, but I am most certainly a geek — earning a degree from the International Space University probably cemented my geek status for life. Also, I have the great fortune of working at a place–the X Prize Foundation, where I run the Google Lunar X Prize–that celebrates geek culture in a major way. And though we’ve been in the news this week because of the finals for our Progressive Insurance Automotive X Prize and our announcement of our newest competition, the Wendy Schmidt Oil Cleanup X Challenge, I’m guestblogging here at GeekDad to talk about a different project: an educational competition called MoonBots.
As previously discussed at GeekDad, MoonBots is a competition for the younger geeks of the world. Students aged 9-18 are competing to, in essence, win the Google Lunar X Prize using Lego Mindstorms kits. The competition is divided into two phases: from early April through late May, more than 200 teams from 15+ countries used CAD software like Lego Digital Designer and Google SketchUp to design a lunar rover and submitted their design, along with a brief video highlighting their main reasons to explore the Moon.
We had a very tough time selecting from the entries, but we were eventually able to whittle our way down to twenty finalists. Each of these finalists was then, thanks to the generous support of our partners (full disclosure: including Wired/GeekDad!), sent about $500 worth of Lego bricks, Mindstorms Kits, and subscriptions to Wired magazines. Those finalists are spending the summer using their designs and those components to actually build their functional MoonBots as well as a large (7′ x 7′) moonscape complete with a variety of challenging obstacles like craters and ridges.
Following these teams has been fun and inspiring — thankfully, all of them are maintaining blogs — so we thought we’d profile a few of them for the GeekDad audience. We know you’ll enjoy following along with them just as much as we have. One final caveat, which hopefully goes without saying: any discussion here does not imply anything whatsoever when it comes to selection of the overall winners of the competition. Thankfully, we’ve got a stellar panel of expert judges–including entrepreneur and private space explorer Anousheh Ansari and uber-inventor Dean Kamen — who will take care of that process for us.
First up, team Shadowed Craters hails from the San Diego area. The team consists of two boys and two girls, aged 13 – 16, all of whom are veterans of the various robotics challenges put on by FIRST Robotics. Their team captain, Richard, a father certainly worthy of the GeekDad moniker, notes that “All the kids have worked with the Mindstorms NXT for FTC and/or FLL competitions so knew how to build and program NXT robots. I have always had a strong interest in the space program and astronomy, and thought this would be a good way to teach my kids about it and possibly interest them in exploring careers related to it.” As you can imagine, that’s music the ears of those of us who put on this competition.
When we were writing the prize rules, we paid a lot of attention to FIRST. We wanted the competition to be difficult enough to challenge FIRST veterans in their off-season, but also straight-forward enough that new teams could emerge to enter the competition (and, ideally, take advantage of the fact that our three winners each receive a FIRST registration and start-up kit). We asked Richard how we did in that respect, and what his overall impressions were of MoonBots. He said:
The toughest part of the game is probably the autonomous robot mission. FLL tournament fields have a very smooth surface, so the NXT robots don’t usually deal with the uncertainty of rough terrain. (FTC tournaments often have terrain features to deal with, but mostly use the aluminum Tetrix kit for chassis and drive motors.) We think use of multiple sensors for navigational feedback will be the most important factor for a successful mission. One more tough issue that’s more logistical has been the short timeframe of the competition during a time when many families go on vacation! It’s been hard finding time when all the kids are actually in town at the same time for meetings. We’ve been having to do some Moonbots work while on vacation.
The kids (and I) have learned more about the early manned space programs, current and previous robotic probes, and of course the Google Lunar X Prize itself. We were all surprised to learn that it has been 34 years since there was a manned lunar landing! It’s also great to talk to the kids about the way current NASA programs are being revised and have them wonder why things are being changed.
In addition, we have been learning a lot about different planetary rover drive mechanisms: rocker-bogies, differentials, pendulum drives, skid-steer, etc. — and how to build them in Lego Technics.
We are definitely having a good time – both making video and text blog entries, and working on the robot!
Here are the students themselves talking about some of those technical challenges in one of their video blog entries:
We asked Richard what he thought of the team’s odds in the competition, now that’s he’s had some time to size up the other teams. He said, “We think we stand a very good chance of placing high in the competition because of our previous experience, however several other teams appear to have very similar experience levels. My youngest daughter would love to win an iPod Touch!”
Best of luck to team Shadowed Craters, and may the best team win!