TMCNet:  Southwest Michigan students' design a finalist for use on space station robot

[March 30, 2012]

Southwest Michigan students' design a finalist for use on space station robot

Mar 30, 2012 (South Bend Tribune - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- It may not look like a foot or walk like a foot but, certainly, its four toes -- yes, four -- sure have a grip.

And, if all goes as hoped by a group of area high school sophomores, it'll be selected to be affixed to R2 -- a robot, although not the R2-D2 droid of Star Wars fame -- at the International Space Station.

It's all part of an initiative known as the RealWorld-InWorld NASA Engineering Design Challenge. The students -- Andrew Shafer, of Edwardsburg High School; Carl Steinhauser, enrolled at Berrien Springs; and Ryan High, Adam Merrick and Evan Hauck, all students at Bridgman High -- were made aware of the challenge by Evan's mom, Andrea Hauck, a math teacher at Ring Lardner Middle School in Niles.

According to Evan's father, John Hauck, Andrea told Evan about the challenge and he in turn discussed it with Steinhauser, Shafer, High and Merrick, who spend a portion of their study time with Evan at the Berrien County Math and Science Center in Berrien Springs. Thus was born Team MSC, one of 57 that signed on to tackle one of two design problems offered by the program.

One involved designing a shield to keep the James Webb Space Telescope cold enough to detect infrared light from sources light years away. The other called for designing a zero-gravity foot to attach to Robonaut 2 -- R2 for short -- so it can secure itself to a railing outside the space station and interact with space-walking astronauts.

Perhaps it shouldn't have been a surprise that Sharon Bowers, the program manager for the challenge and a Virginia school teacher on loan to the National Institute of Aerospace, said about two-thirds of the teams opted for the robot foot. The designs submitted make use of three-dimensional models and emerging computer technology, she said, "This is the kind of environment kids love, walking in digital space," she said.

Evan Hauck said R2 currently features everything it needs from the torso up. Its legs are in development, states the challenge website, and Evan pointed out a requirement for the foot is that it needs to weigh less than 3 pounds. Team MSC resolved the issue by going with aluminum, he said.

His role, he said, essentially was limited to brainstorming.

"The hardest part ... was coming up with the idea of how it was going to work. We wanted to make it simple," he said.

The device features several slew gears, he said, two of which rotate to allow four prongs -- toes -- to clamp onto the railing. John Hauck, a software engineer who served as the team's advisor until its design became a top 10 finalist and a graduate student in Florida took over, said two of the prongs attach to one side of the railing and the other two to the other side.

"It's a really stable grip,'' he said.

A current "mystery challenge'' calls for the teams still in the competitions to apply their designs to real-world, money-making applications. Based in part on how students respond, three finalists will be chosen Friday for each of the two design problems. Virtual tours involving NASA representatives will then help decide the two winners.

Those team members whose designs are selected will each receive $1,000. Thus far, that's one of the few aspects of the challenge that has Evan, for one, stumped.

"I'm not sure yet what I'd do with it,'' he said.

Staff writer Lou Mumford: 269-687-3551 ___ (c)2012 the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.) Visit the South Bend Tribune (South Bend, Ind.) at Distributed by MCT Information Services

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