The University of Central Florida Lunar Knights Mining Club earned first place for social media and public engagement at NASA’s annual Robotic Mining Competition that judges student-made robots on how well they traverse and excavate simulated Martian soil.

The award is given to the team that most effectively uses social media platforms to engage the public, NASA and other robotic teams with their participation in the competition. Teams compete for first place in innovation, outreach, engineering methods and best overall, among other categories.

“Winning first place for social media was super exciting,” said Adrienne Dove, assistant professor of physics and Lunar Knights’ faculty advisor. “We’re unique in that our team has student members from marketing and other disciplines at UCF, so that helped when it came to outreach and communicating with the public.”

Forty-five U.S. student teams competed in the eighth annual Robotic Mining Competition that requires robots to traverse, excavate and collect simulated Martian soil for examination, all while operated from a remote mission-control center. This presents NASA with outside ideas of how to mine on Mars, an important next step in space exploration. Mining robots can help uncover ice that’s beneath the planet’s surface that can, in turn, supply water for human consumption, hygiene, growing plants and more.

Through the years, many student teams have built upon and improved the same robot. The Lunar Knights Mining Club, however, started from scratch this year and still successfully traversed and mined the terrain.

“Typically, it takes a school several years to learn how to build a functioning robot that avoids getting stuck in the soft lunar-like soil and that avoids breaking down as it mines,” said Phil Metzger, associate in planetary science research at UCF’s Florida Space Institute. “I have been a judge at the competition for seven years now and I can attest that it is a very significant accomplishment for a school to successfully mine the harsh regolith. For a young team to break in with a competent robot is an outstanding achievement.”

The University of Alabama took home the top prize, the Joe Kosmo Award for Excellence, which goes to the best overall robot.

UCF’s robot featured 3-D printed parts, a bucket-ladder system to collect the soil and a dust-mitigation system to prevent soil or dust intrusion in other areas of the robot. The regolith is about as fine as flour, making it challenging to keep it out of the robot’s systems.

Lunar Knights Mining Club is an interdisciplinary team made up of students from all engineering disciplines, marketing, psychology, criminal justice and others. Club president Esther Amram, who graduated this month with a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering, said it’s been a great hands-on learning experience. Aside from the designing and building, students also raised $5,000 and were given donated parts and equipment from local companies.

Lunar Knights is a registered student organization and also partly was funded by the Student Government Association.

“We were really happy with how well they did and this will give us a lot to build on next year as we improve,” said Dove.