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Students Steer Robotic Swarms in NASA Competition

By: 

Ashley Schwartz

Electrical and computer engineering professor Aaron Becker and students in his “Intro to Robotics” class have been invited to “join the swarm” as selected participants in the first annual Swarmathon taking place from April 18-22, 2016 at the NASA Kennedy Space Center.

Students from minority-serving institutions were encouraged to apply to the Swarmathon competition, hosted by NASA and organized by the University of New Mexico. NASA selected 12 teams representing 14 schools to compete in Swarmathon by developing search algorithms for robotic swarms.

Prior to the competition, each team was mailed three “swarmie” robots, small robotic vehicles that resemble a ruggedized version of an RC truck toy. Each swarmie is equipped with range sensors, accelerometers, a 3-axis magnetic compass, a webcam, a GPS system and a Wi-Fi antenna. They are controlled by the Robotic Operating System (ROS), a software used by robotics manufacturers all over the world that controls both the physical and virtual scenarios of these robots.

The students will send the code they developed to the Swarmathon, a remote competition that takes place in an environment meant to represent the surface of Mars. The code developed will be used to control a swarm of robots with a goal of developing methods that improve resource retrieval rates for future exploration missions.

By participating in this competition, the students will have an opportunity to improve their skills in robotics and computer science and further advance technology for future NASA space exploration missions. The winning team will be awarded a $5,000 cash prize.

This unique experience allows the participating students to go beyond the fundamental theorems and basic math taught in their classroom.

“My students want to go out and program self driving cars,” said Becker. “By exposing them to both ends of the spectrum: the underlying math and the high-level operating system, they will have deep understanding and exposure to cutting-edge software practices.”

This project involves undergraduate and graduate students from the electrical and computer engineering department and the mechanical engineering department at the UH Cullen College of Engineering.

For more information on the NASA Swarmathon, click here or search #jointheswarm

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