NASA Engineers Visit Asbury, Head Underground – Asbury University
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June 22, 2021

quadruped robot walking in caveFor the scientist or thrill-seeker, Asbury University’s proximity to limestone caves and cliffs is tough to beat. This month it served as the perfect location for engineers on Team CoSTAR from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), as they fine-tuned their robots designed for cave and mine search and rescue maneuvers.

The initiative is part of a larger three-year research and development competition, the DARPA Subterranean Challenge, bringing together teams from research institutions around the world to develop autonomous subterranean vehicles and solutions for military and civilian first responders. NASA JPL aims to further develop and use this technology on Mars to explore caves with environments potentially conducive to supporting human life in the future.

engineer at a computerTeam CoSTAR utilized Asbury dorms and common rooms to work on the robots and collaborate on the high-tech project. They picked the mines at Kentucky Underground Storage in High Bridge, about five miles from campus, because they are geologically similar to those of the Louisville Mega Caverns, where the team heads in September will go to complete the three-year competition.

Team CoSTAR lead Dr. Benjamin Morrell, a robotics technologist at the California Institute of Technology, took the time to speak to ImpactU students about searching for evidence of life on Mars while at Asbury and also gave them a word of encouragement about heading into the field of robotics.

two people posing with a wheeled robot“There are some brilliant facilities at Asbury and I love the new one being built,” he said in reference to the cutting-edge Collaborative Learning Center. The facilities here are world class,” adding that students at Asbury should be “diving into” robotics careers because there are ample opportunities available around the world.

Morrell said that despite spending a lot of his time underground, his team, who hails from around the world, enjoyed the tranquility of the beautiful Central Kentucky campus. And he noted the caves here are perfect for research because the surrounding land is largely primitive and undeveloped.

NASA JPL wheeled robot with sensors

“The NASA team is testing robots here in what is probably a paradise for robot testing here at Kentucky Underground,” Morrell said. “What’s really exciting here is the scale of the environment – how big the underground environment is, and some of the challenges there are with navigating through it, searching it and some of the terrain that we have to navigate over. Also it’s a great place for us to be testing because of how welcoming and friendly everyone is around the environment. Jeff Baier from Kentucky Underground has been really supportive of us. And we’ve been staying at Asbury, in the dorms there and getting our food from the local restaurants. We’ve been blown away by the hospitality. It’s been a really warm environment for us to come and test and work hard and work late. Having people supportive around us makes a world of difference.”

He noted Asbury’s proximity to both the caves and the Lexington airport, making the logistics “a dream.”