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NM robots ready to rumble at NASA competition

One of the robots that students program for the NASA Swarmathon competition. (Source: University of New Mexico)

One of the robots that students program for the NASA Swarmathon competition. (Source: University of New Mexico)

Copyright © 2017 Albuquerque Journal

If humans one day colonize Mars, perhaps the University of New Mexico will have played a small part.

College students from across the country are programming robots to perform exploration-related tasks for this week’s NASA Swarmathon at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, a NASA-funded competition organized by the University of New Mexico.

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Participants write computer code that enables ant-like robots to autonomously navigate an arena, finding and collecting small cubes. Organizers want the challenge to mimic the gathering of resources, such as ice, on the surface of Mars, according to Melanie Moses, an associate professor of computer science at UNM and Swarmathon’s principal investigator.

UNM associate professor Melanie Moses, who runs the program with postdoctoral researchers and students in her Biological Computation Lab. (Source: University of New Mexico)

UNM associate professor Melanie Moses, who runs the program with postdoctoral researchers and students in her Biological Computation Lab. (Source: University of New Mexico)

Central to the challenge is getting robots to work together – or at least stay out of one another’s way – since each team will field three robots in the arena.

Swarming “introduces a layer of complication – you have to come up with the rules by which the agents communicate with each other,” Moses said.

Robot swarms could aid NASA’s initiative to put people on Mars, arriving on the red planet ahead of humans to make it habitable, Moses said. But other possible swarm uses include bomb detection and search and rescue missions; swarms can cover far more ground than a single unit.

“There are lots of applications,” said Matthew Fricke, the software lead on the Swarmathon project, noting that one company has already developed robots that can identify and pull weeds on farmland.

Ants provided inspiration for the competition robots because of their foraging acumen.

“They’re very good at collecting resources in all kinds of different environments,” said Moses, whose lab at UNM focuses on “biologically inspired computation.”

Swarmathon’s physical competition, now in its second year, runs today through Thursday and should feature 19 teams from around the United States.

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As the organizing university, UNM will not compete. But a number of postdoctoral researchers and current students worked on the software that makes it possible, including UNM junior Antonio Griego.

“This is legitimate software engineering experience; we’re doing a lot of things I would actually do in an actual job,” he said.

Competitors this week will include Central New Mexico Community College and Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute. Another 15 schools participated in a virtual version of the competition. UNM graduate student Elizabeth E. Esterly has also launched a high school edition.

More than 1,000 students have participated in Swarmathon, which NASA has backed with about $2 million so far. UNM’s agreement is with NASA Minority University Research and Education Program, and the program aims to reach students at institutions that serve minorities.

“NASA appreciates the idea that if we’re going to take on these enormous challenges like going to Mars, we need to tap into the intellectual abilities of the entire population,” Moses said. “You can’t just focus on Ivy League schools and MIT and Stanford; you really need to draw talent from across the country, and it’s great seeing how much talent there is in small schools all over the place.”

The NASA Swarmathon competition, a collaboration between the University of New Mexico and the NASA Minority University Research and Education Program, challenges students to program ant-like robots to work together to locate and collect items as if they were gathering resources on the surface of Mars. (Source: University of New Mexico)

The NASA Swarmathon competition, a collaboration between the University of New Mexico and the NASA Minority University Research and Education Program, challenges students to program ant-like robots to work together to locate and collect items as if they were gathering resources on the surface of Mars. (Source: University of New Mexico)


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