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updated 3/14/2011 2:10:33 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:10:33

A team of eighth-grade students from New Jersey has won first place for its miniature lunar rover made entirely out of LEGO pieces.

The competition, called MoonBots, is the mini version of the Google Lunar X Prize, which challenged teams to land an actual rover on the moon and offered a prize of $30 million. While not a trip to the moon, the student winners land a tour of the LEGO factory in Billund, Denmark.

The team, called Landroids, built a four-wheeled robot accessorized with a motorized arm and a basket for collecting moon samples. The miniature machine successfully maneuvered along and sampled from a lunar-like surface, equipped with craters, moon rocks and other rough terrain.

The Landroids are “very excited” about the visit to the land of LEGOs, team leader John Yeh told TechNewsDaily.
The Shadowed Craters team from California snagged second place, while the Moonwalk team from New Jersey and Connecticut came in third.

The competition was sponsored by the X Prize Foundation and LEGO Group; the winners were announced last Wednesday.

[Read also " New Web Site Allows Virtual Moonwalks ."]

Mini rovers

Each of the competing teams was given a set of tools to design, build and control the lunar robots. Their toolbox included motors, sensors and LEGO bricks, as well as one LEGO MINDSTORMS NXT Intelligent Brick, which is a computer chip with Flash memory and Bluetooth capability that served as the robot's brain.

The teams designed the colorful mini-bots using LDRAW, LEGO Digital Designer or Google SketchUp software. The designs along with video essays and blogs were submitted to the judges.

The design phase of the competition let the teams refine their robots. The Landroids team “explored quite a few different options” before settling on the final design, Yeh said. In particular, the team changed the design for the moon-rock-grasping arm from a complex double claw to a simple fork.

"Eventually we had to give [the double claw] up, because moving something with that much mass, it was just too difficult to control the turning accuracy," Yeh said.

Lunar mission

In the final phase of the competition, the robots created by the top 20 teams got to strut their stuff and performed a simulated lunar mission on a LEGO mat.

The lunar simulation “very closely paralleled the work our Google Lunar X Prize teams were doing,” said William Pomerantz, senior director of Space Prizes for the X PRIZE Foundation.

Among other lunar tasks, the robots had to find and collect water ice and Helium-3 samples, photograph artifacts, survive the lunar night, and return to base in less than three minutes of its arrival on the moon .

Surviving a night on the moon was simulated LEGO-style by maneuvering the robot to the Peak of Eternal Light – a miniature version of a region on the moon where the Sun never sets – and stopping for five seconds.

© 2012 TechNewsDaily

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