Capacity development is one of the goals of the African space programme, which the African Space Strategy reiterates. Accordingly, Africa seeks to train professionals in the space industry who can leverage space technology to solve Africa’s challenges. In this regard, South Africa’s SpringBots team is attempting to solve local environmental problems with their self-assembled CubeSat prototype under the auspices of the 2021 FIRST Global Challenge.
FIRST Global Challenge
The FIRST Global Challenge is an Olympics-style international robotics competition held in a different country each year. For this year’s CubeSat challenge, teams select a mission of importance to their community. They utilise an Arduino-based kit to create their CubeSat prototypes to provide a tangible solution to that local need. Teams design, build, programme, and test their CubeSat prototypes and then deploy them into the lower layers of Earth’s atmosphere. Unlike a traditional CubeSat, the prototype launches into the lower layers of Earth’s atmosphere using methods such as high altitude balloons.
Representing Africa, South Africa’s Spring Bots have gone through these stages and have launched their prototype CubeSat. The STEM and robotics-oriented team comprise eight individuals who proudly represent and demonstrate how STEM innovation can advance progressive and sustainable life in Africa. Interestingly, the ages of the team members range from 14-18.
Ensuring a design that could alleviate local challenges, the team’s CubeSat will study air pollution within residential and/or industrial areas. Furthermore, the prototype will gather data that policymakers can use to analyse the environment and make informed decisions to resolve air and ground pollution. Thus, the objective is to understand how these factors affect ground and air pollution, utilising their derived data to draft a clear cause-effect relationship. For this study, the CubeSat will achieve an altitude of 50 kilometres.
The CubeSat is equipped with the ArduCam Mini Module Camera Shield 5MP Plus OV5642 and a Grove Laser PM 2.5 Particle sensor. These sensors will capture visuals of particular areas of land and measure the air quality. They will also monitor land use, population density, natural wildlife presence, etc., to evaluate greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. The Grove Laser sensor is mounted onto the side of the open-air structure to allow effective analyses of necessary air samples. Likewise, the ArduCam is mounted on the structure’s base to take land shots from a clear aerial point of view. The instruments are part of the robotics kit for each team.
The launch took place at Denel’s facility on Tuesday, 28 September 2021, utilising helium balloons and a tethering system. South African company Prommac donated the helium balloon for the launch. The prototype spent 10 minutes at the desired 50 kilometres above sea level before its guided descent.
Benefits of the programme
A significant benefit of this mission is understanding the aggravating factors of land and air pollution and how to attenuate them in their environment. Secondly, the mission provides an opportunity to leverage data such as land use and population density to suggest effective town-planning remedies. In addition, through the competition, the teams will get familiar with different CubeSat prototype subsystems. These include structural, electrical, software and computing, sensing, data storage, and launch systems. In addition, they will learn about mission planning and data analysis.
After this achievement, Spring Bots plans to have robotics hubs in rural communities to teach STEM-related fields. These hubs will launch their own prototype CubeSats to monitor air and land pollution in their areas. Furthermore, Spring Bots aims to create a South African space station that can work with the International Space Station and share knowledge and technology. However, insufficient funding restrains from pursuing its ambition.