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     Volume 11 |Issue 20| May 18, 2012 |


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Lunar Dreams

Three universities are to represent Bangladesh next week in the third annual NASA Lunabotics Mining Competition in Florida, after having worked tirelessly on their robots for months.

Soraya Auer

BRACU Lunabotics team with Chondrobot v.2. Photo: Courtesy
IUT Lunabotics team with Lunatian. Photo: Courtesy
MIST’s Robomist. Photo: Courtesy
MIST Lunabotics team and faculty advisers. Photo: Courtesy

Ask a child what they want to be when they grow up and you will hear the same ambitious, dangerous or highly sought after professions. Becoming an astronaut or working for NASA is one of them, and for 20 Bangladeshi students that childhood dream could be one step closer.

Teams from BRAC University (BRACU), Islamic University of Technology (IUT), and Military Institute of Science and Technology (MIST) have worked tirelessly for months to be able to compete in NASA's third annual Lunabotics Mining Competition to begin on May 21 at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. NASA's challenge to students was to design and build an excavator, called a Lunabot, capable of mining and depositing a minimum of 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of lunar simulant, or 'dust', in 10 minutes.

“For an aeronautical engineer, to be able to give a project to NASA is a big thing,” says Tanjila Ahmed, a lecturer of Aeronautical Engineering and the faculty advisor to the MIST lunabotics team. Ahmed and other faculty members hope to accompany at least four of the four aeronautical engineering students and one computer science and engineering student to the university-level competition. “We're very excited and particularly excited because NASA is a dream place for every engineer. It's the place where the aeronautical engineers really work,” she adds.

Sixty universities from the USA, Mexico, India, South Korea, Canada, Colombia and Romania qualified in April to bring their robots to the NASA competition, which will run from May 21 – 26. For the three university teams from Bangladesh, the experience will be a first for two of them.

“This is the first time we have ever participated in such a competition,” says Md Rejwanul Haque of the MIST team. “I can't actually put it into words how excited I am. This experience will be a big platform and I'm very lucky and thankful that we have the opportunity to take part in this competition and the chance to do well for our university and country,” says the student, whose team started slaving over the project in October last year.

Now in the home stretch of their projects, the three teams can at least breathe knowing their robots fit the NASA requirements and work effectively. But the months leading up to this point had not been easy. “They had to build the robot four times,” remembers Ahmed. “We tried various systems. For the electrical part, there is a rule that we have to use wireless wi-fi communication but we didn't have the right equipment in Bangladesh.”

Haque explains, “We had to buy the specified wi-fi device from Italy and it was very problematic to buy online and also very expensive. The rule is the robot either has to be operated automatically or from a 100m distance, [the latter of] which we chose to do. Now we're capable of controlling the robot from a 500m distance, which is a great achievement for us.”

The lunabotics competition is also a first time for IUT, whose team of five fourth-year electrical and electronic engineering students made their way to the USA over a week ago. Led by their faculty advisor Assistant Professor Golam Sarowar, Istiaque Rahaman, Riasat Siam Islam, Asif Khan, Towfiz Rahman and Abrar Ahmed built their robot named Lunatian. The team, which was active on Facebook, said farewell to supporters before their flight, saying, “We are overwhelmed by your support and wishes. Pray for us so that we can bring pride and success to Bangladesh and IUT.”

While IUT and MIST are first time competitors, BRACU will be participating in their second NASA Lunabotics Mining Competition. “Last year there were 45 teams from different countries, and we reached the 25th place,” says Bonny Amin Khan, who worked on the mechanical aspects of BRACU's robot for this year's competition. “The robot was working but something went wrong, a connection was missed, and while the team fixed it, if the problem hadn't happened, maybe they would've done better.”

Hoping to improve on their ranking from last year, Chrondrobot V.2 is BRACU team's new and improved lunabot. “We are testing our robot continuously to make sure what happened last year doesn't happen again. Our lunabot is a fully automated robot that NASA approved the design of. It's possibly the first of its kind in Bangladesh,” explains Khan, who is an electrical and electronic engineering student. “This is our second time participating so we hope that means our robot has an advantage and is better but,” he adds, “I'm really proud of [IUT and MIST] for being in the competition and how much they have achieved.”

The three teams hope to win in at least one of the five categories set by NASA but their competitive nature has not caused any friction between each other. “BRACU and IUT have been very friendly and we have discussed our robots. They've been very helpful so we have tried to be helpful too,” explains Haque, who is confident MIST's robot, called Robomist, will perform well. He adds, “I think the reason why there's not been so much competition between our universities is because we're going [to the USA] as representatives of our country, together.”

With the competition beginning in just a few days, Bangladesh's three teams will now be reconstructing their lunabots after air travel, testing their robots' responses and maybe even attaching our national flag to their displays. From design flaws to funding problems, these students have stuck it out with their robotic labour of love. The competition was designed to engage and retain students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics and it is safe to say that it has at least reignited the childhood dreams of some Bangladeshi students. They can now believe in their chances to impress, and maybe one day join, NASA. It is one small step for engineers, but one big leap for Bangladesh.

the Star would like to wish the best of luck to the lunabotics teams from BRACU, IUT and MIST in the coming week's competition.

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