Outreach overdrive: University of Alabama robotics team goes the extra mile for young student

Outreach overdrive: University of Alabama robotics team goes the extra mile for young student
Members of the University of Alabama's Astrobotics team with Justin and his new ride. (University of Alabama)

For the past eight years, the University of Alabama’s Astrobotics team has fared well in the various categories of NASA’s annual Robotic Mining Competition.

But while it placed first in areas such as team spirit, presentation, communications, mining, autonomy and even first overall for four years, the outreach award proved to be elusive for this competitive team.

After not placing in the outreach category last year, the team redoubled its efforts this year. Four members of the 60-person team didn’t just meet the criteria by conducting meaningful outreach to engage others in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM); they decided to go a bit further by changing one boy’s life.

Justin is a 5-year-old at the University of Alabama’s RISE school, which works with children with physical disabilities. He was born with a rare condition that resulted in shortened limbs. Justin cannot walk. To get around, he must roll or be pushed in a stroller.

Enter Astrobotics. Four team members saw an opportunity to stretch their talents beyond a robotic vehicle fit for Mars — providing Justin with a whole new level of independence in the form of a small car customized to his needs.

“From the first time we met Justin, we quickly learned several things,” team member Joseph Kabalin said. “One, he is a very bright kid that could learn to drive the car if we gave him the means to do so. Two, no matter what, we had to make the car work for him, because from the first time we met him he was constantly smiling and excited about the car. And three, we knew that no matter how much we personally gained from this project, nothing could compare to what Justin would gain once we gave him his new car.”

The University of Alabama Astrobotics team celebrates its recent win in NASA’s Robotic Mining Competition. (Contributed)

The team spent seven months working with Justin and his classmates to develop the control panel, which included a joystick and two push buttons he could easily reach. Team members outfitted an off-the-shelf battery-operated car with these controls, upgraded the battery to provide a longer charge during playtime and even included a parental control system that allows his parents or teachers to remotely control the vehicle from their smartphones.

In April, the four members of the robotics team who’d worked on the project presented Justin with a means of independent mobility: an Alabama Audi.

Justin now is cruising everywhere in style and, more importantly, on his own. It’s all thanks to the engineering spirit of one team not just looking to win a competition — which it did, finally taking home first place in the outreach category — but looking to make a difference.

“Of all the senior projects we had the opportunity to work on, this project was by far the most meaningful and rewarding project we could have chosen. We were given the chance to work with an incredible young boy and the opportunity to change and improve his life through our work,” Kabalin said.

This story originally appeared on the nasa.gov website.

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