By Pel Beyak

The future of space exploration was literally put on the line when four students from UCSC won an engineering competition. The student robotics competition, which took place in Long Beach at the beginning of March, was a contest to design a space elevator, a machine that can attach itself to a cable and carry materials all the way into Earth’s orbit.

The students’ project sprung from a desire to work with renewable energy, such as solar power.

“We all got together and said, ‘Let’s do something with green energy,’” team member Bill Hogan said.

Hogan and his teammates, Kevin Hichborn, Laurel DeMarco and Scott Therien, are fourth-year electrical engineering majors.

The objective was to design and build a machine that could climb a 20-foot fiber ribbon, powered solely by a light source shining from the floor.

“I feel the world needs to go in the direction of renewable energy, because we’re not going to have oil for very long,” DeMarco said. “If we can find out different types of renewable energies, that would be great, and I want to be part of that.”

Utilizing solar power was the biggest challenge to many teams in the competition.

“The light source had a limited diameter. It could only shine on four [solar] cells,” Hogan said. “A lot of teams didn’t anticipate that. That’s where we were successful.”

If solar cells are wired in a series circuit, they are at risk of the “shadow effect,” an interruption in the electrical current that occurs if one cell is not getting light. The group used an alternative design, called a “bridge link,” for the wiring of the solar cells. They also used a device to improve the voltage created by the solar cells, and a modified Playstation controller as a remote control for the climber.

The competition was part of the Earth and Space Conference, hosted by the Aerospace Division of the American Society of Civil Engineers. This is the second year that the design objective has been a space elevator. For the previous eight years, students had to remotely control a robot onto a sandbox where a box had been buried. The robot would then have to drill a hole into the box, install an airlock and pressurize the box. This was meant to simulate the need to pressurize a sealed cave under the surface of the moon.

Every year, 20 universities sign up, but fewer than 10 make it to the competition, explained Ahad Nasab of Middle Tennessee State University, chair of the competition for the last eight years.

“These competitions tend to be challenging and multi-disciplinary, not a cookie-cutter competition,” Nasab said. “[The participants] have to come up with every little thing from scratch.”

The robotic climbers were not judged simply on whether it reached the top of the ribbon. The teams are judged on eight criteria, including speed, weight of the robot, weight of the payload and an oral presentation about their own projects.

Nasab explained that the mechanisms for climbing the ribbon could range from using chains to gears, meaning that there were a large variety of designs present at the competition. Along with differing mechanisms, climbers were built from anything from plexiglass to foam core. And even after months of work, the atmosphere of the competition, was supportive.

“[In this competition, contestants] try to help each other,” Nasab said. “There are equipment problems, and everybody shares tools…There’s no way that they would steal ideas, so the only thing that’s left is learning from each other.”