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Building blocks: Robotics finalists teach machines to assemble cubes

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Imagine you’re holding a cube in each hand. One of the cubes has a hole in its face, while the other has a peg.

Now, insert the peg into the hole, connecting the two cubes.

Sounds easy, right?

For the humans programming robots to do the same thing in the Air Force Research Laboratory’s inaugural Spacecraft Robotics Challenge finals on Saturday, the task was a daunting one.

“Although we didn’t build the robot, we’re programming it, we’re developing algorithms, we’re using computer vision to locate the blocks, locations and orientation,” said Joseph Kloeppel, a University of New Mexico electrical and computer engineering graduate student who competed on a team with three other students.

Each of the three finalists worked through 10 challenges of varying difficulty involving the cubes, receiving points for each completed.

The blocks in the tasks were representations of components of CubeSats, very small satellites made up of groups of cubes.

Andy Williams of the AFRL’s Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base said current researchers are working to develop autonomous robots that can replace humans in the assembly of CubeSats.

“The way that we build spacecraft today is manual labor: usually Ph.D.s in a cleanroom,” Williams said. “That gets to be very expensive.”

Building CubeSats could get especially expensive, Williams said, because it’s planned for them to be deployed in clusters of 20 to 200.

The finals were held at the Albuquerque Convention Center in the midst of the third annual Discovery Festival, which showcases and encourages kids to become interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields.

That was no accident.

Creighton Edington of Peralta works on a robot he built himself out of spare parts during the AFRL Spacecraft Robotics Challenge finals on Saturday in Albuquerque. Three robots competed in several rounds to complete tasks required to build a small satellite. (Marla Brose/Journal)

“AFRL is really focused on STEM, because it’s absolutely critical for the Air Force to keep its technology edge,” Williams said. “We really wanted to partner with this event so that we can get kids excited about it.”

Nine-year-old Azul was certainly one of them.

“He was here yesterday with one of the school programs and he loved it so much, he wanted to come back,” his mother, Carmelina Hart of Albuquerque, said, as Azul played with tiny robots called “Ozobots” at a nearby booth. “He’s gone through almost every single exhibit.”

Interactive booths were set up by a variety of local groups, including Sandia National Laboratories, New Mexico Tech, the Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the Boys and Girls Club.

Blocks, clips, clothespins and Popsicle sticks from, an organization that encourages STEAM and robotics activities for children, sit on a table at the Discovery Festival. (Marla Brose/Albuquerque Journal)

Kids had the opportunity to try out new surgical technologies with representatives of Ethicon Inc., and see how natural gas flows through pipes from the New Mexico Gas Co.

The event was sponsored by defense giant Honeywell and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central New Mexico.

Dean Stoor, a site leader of Albuquerque’s Honeywell operations and Big Brothers Big Sisters board member, estimated more than 2,000 people had attended this year’s festival.

“We’re starting at a younger age and trying to generate that interest (in STEM),” Stoor said.

He said Honeywell, among others, is struggling to fill positions, especially in engineering.

“Essentially, our message to the kids is engineering isn’t just four more years of book learning,” he said. “These are the kinds of things you get to use and do in a career of engineering. These are giving the kids good insight on what the career would be like … It’s good for everybody.”