The field of robotics may be very complex for some, but for Michelle Hawley, it’s more than a complicated industry; it’s her passion.
“I’ve always loved technology,” Hawley said. “It just seems so limitless, and there’s so much strategy that goes into it. The strategy and optimization is my favorite part; that’s why I like industrial and mechanics engineering.”
As a senior industrial engineering major, she’s no stranger to the robotics field. Her involvement with robots goes back to high school, where she was on the robotics team.
“Every time they showed something new on the Discovery Channel, or when they did expos on the MIT Lab, I was so captivated,” Hawley said.
Transitioning to UCF, she enjoyed her classes, but was looking for something more.
“I was disappointed nothing was happening hands-on,” Hawley said.
Luckily, her timing was spot on.
Two years ago, a small senior design project was slowly being developed. It involved designing a remote-controlled robot and testing it during a competition at NASA at the end of the spring semester.
What began as a small class project grew into a student club focused on preparing for the Robotic Mining Competition at the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in May. Fifty teams from around the country go head to head as they compete in challenges to build a functioning Mars rover.
“We create an environment that simulates off-world mining conditions,” said Rich Johanboeke, the NASA project manager for the competition.
The competition is carried out in a sandbox-like arena, where teams must use their robot to collect sediment and materials similar to what would be found on the Martian surface.
Hawley wanted to put her skills to use and attempt the competition on a more serious level. She helped form a team of 20 students and began to design a robot from scratch — thus the Lunar Knights were formed.
Thanks to sponsorships and grants, the group began working on its design and split teams into electrical, mechanical and software focuses.
Hawley and the rest of the team worked throughout the year and were able to produce a robot ready for competition back in May. The robot performed well, but technical problems ultimately knocked them out of the running.
For the Lunar Knights though, it wasn’t about winning. Hawley sees it as the experience as a whole. Getting face time with NASA engineers was a bigger win for her, as she one day hopes to work with robotics for NASA.
“Opening that dialogue and getting that face time is priceless,” Hawley said. “It affords students a chance to network while being able to prove how qualified they are.”
Being from UCF also provided a home-field advantage.
“A lot of the engineers were UCF alumni and kept offering suggestions or asking questions,” Hawley said. She added this helped provide an outside viewpoint to their troubleshooting and brought valuable insight.
Even while facing problems with their mining equipment, the Knights continued to look at the bigger picture of what they had accomplished over the course of the year. Broken mining gear and remote-communication issues tested the group's ability to problem solve and adapt.
The night before the competition, the teams competing were invited to a dinner at the Visitor Complex where the Saturn V rocket is displayed.
“We were eating dinner under a rocket,” Hawley said. “How cool is that?”
This year, Hawley has increased her involvement and taken over as president of the club. The Lunar Knights have doubled in size to more than 40 members, allowing them to now have advisory boards, computer and electrical teams, marketing teams and the mechanical team. Hawley, and the rest of the executive board, said they enjoy having such a range of talent.
“We’re teaching students new concepts, and that’s what it's all about,” said Melissa McGuire, the business manager and secretary for the club.
As the club isn’t major-specific, team members come from almost every school on campus. This diversity brings different viewpoints and facilitates discussion.
The Lunar Knights are planning a more in-depth design this year, building off of what they learned from last year’s competition. Hawley hopes with this team they can reach for Mars. Even if they miss, they’ll land among the stars.