An Insider’s Look At The MoonBots Teams: Just Ducky

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The following is a guest post from Will Pomerantz, Senior Director of Space Prizes at the X Prize Foundation.

This post is a continuation of my series of profiles for teams competing in the MoonBots educational competition. In brief, MoonBots challenges teams of students (aged 9-18, with adult ‘team captains’) to essentially mimic the requirements of the $30,000,000 Google Lunar X PRIZE using free CAD software like Lego Digital Designer and Google SketchUp and, eventually, with Lego Mindstorms kits. Over two hundred teams from around the world entered the competition; only twenty finalists remain. You can also check out profiles of team Shadowed Craters, which also features some additional background on the competition; of team WEBstormers, our South Africa finalists; and of the New Hartford RoboSpartans, who have partnered with one of the Google Lunar X Prize teams.

Today, let’s meet team Just Ducky. The first major surprise about this team is that their mascot is actually a dog, not a duck. Mary Rose (9th Grade), Jake (8th Grade), Jacob (8th Grade), and Steffan (8th Grade) along with adult coach Keith and canine mascot Bear (A Ducky mascot that is a dog named Bear? I’m getting confused) all hail from Woodbury, MN, while Lars (8th Grade) comes from Eleva, WI. Like many of the other MoonBots competitors we’ve discussed here, all of the members of Just Ducky except Jacob are veterans of the FIRST Lego League robotics competition. In face, that’s how they met. In the words of Coach Keith: “As part of the [2008 competition], FLL recommended contacting other teams that were working on similar project topics. Through the FLL online forum, Lars and Steffan answered each other’s online research inquiry, and the correspondence and friendship began. [Steffan’s team] traveled to Wisconsin to meet [Lars’s team] and share research ideas.” Just Ducky is built upon that friendship.

MoonBots is proving quite a challenge–more on that later–but the team members have the boundless energy and creativity of youth, so they’ve been tackling some interesting and challenging side projects as well. They’ve built a Lego Segway and a motion sensing joystick already, but their biggest side project has been launching their MoonBots on a model rocket:

Here’s hoping those recovery negotiations go well.

In terms of the MoonBots mission itself, Coach Keith notes that “the toughest part of the challenge is to design a working arm attachment to our robot to consistently harvest the Helium 3 rings. The orientation of the rings will be announced shortly before judging, which is keeping us guessing.” The team has come up with a highly creative solution, but it remains to be seen whether they’ll find the parts or the volunteer to put it into place.

If it wasn’t obvious from those videos, MoonBots isn’t all work for the team. But the team is certainly learning a lot: Coach Keith tells us that “the things we have learned from the day we accepted the MoonBots challenge–knowing we had just 12 days to complete Phase 1–to the present could fill more space than allowed here.” True to his word, he then listed out too many things for me to repeat, ranging from using Lego Digital Designer to create our robot CAD; to the advanced programming for the accelerometer, EOPD, Compass and GYRO sensors; to the LabVIEW programming language and SolidWorks … and that “is just scratching the surface.” They’ve also been brushing up on their lunar history and current events: “Our research into past NASA missions, the 2010 USA Space Policy, and the current move toward privately funded space exploration has resulted in a tremendous leap in our understanding of the importance of continuing lunar missions in the future.” On top of those technical skills, the team has been building “time management and team building skills that we imagine could certainly be parallel to the real Google Lunar X Prize competitors.”

It’s all for a good cause! The team is looking forward to their chance to shine at the end of the competition. Indeed, their robot is already getting pretty close to fulfilling the mission requirements:

With such great progress already under their belts, how does team Just Ducky feel about their odds to win the whole thing? Again, Coach Keith: “We are trying our best to win, as we are excited to be continuing on [into the final phase of the competition] with these talented teams! We have put in numerous hours as we march to the slogan of FlisKits rockets: “Aim for the sky, and try not to miss!'”

So, please join me in wishing Just Ducky good luck! As always, any discussion here does not imply anything whatsoever when it comes to selection of the overall winners of the competition. May the best team win!

Finally, one housekeeping note: this will likely be my last entry in this particular profile series. You’ll be in the extremely capable hands of GeekDad Dave Banks from here on out. However, it looks like I may be back here in GeekDad in the future with posts about space exploration and the other fields we at the X Prize Foundation are passionate about. If you have suggestions or requests for blog topics, please post them in a the comments, or drop me a line on Twitter!

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