We have all heard about the value of team work, but in Professor Kuijt’s computer science class, the term took on new meaning this semester as students were challenged to create code that would allow a team, or swarm, of robots to work together—in space.
This was not an abstract lesson. The students applied and were accepted to NASA’s 2017 virtual Swarmathon, a competition among 600 students.
According to the Swarmathon website, the goal of the competition is to develop cooperative robotics for space exploration. Swarmathon teams develop computer code used by swarms of robots to autonomously find and collect the most resources in an arena without human supervision or maps. Robot swarms are needed to support NASA’s Journey to Mars.
“Like ants,” says Professor Kuijt. “Ants are not very smart. And ants are autonomous—each one independent and not controlled by a queen. Yet ants do very well collecting food from their environment. Can we program robots—who are not very smart—to work in groups?”
The students worked on the challenge all semester, then headed to the Kennedy Space Center in April for the final stage of competition.
Kuijt admits that although the students worked very hard, his expectations were muted. The semester started a bit later than other schools so they were two weeks behind. Plus, it was their first time and they were competing against some four-year schools.
So when the preliminary scores were announced at the Kennedy Center—the team thought it was a typo. The MC team had collected 188 cubes, which represented actual resources a robot might have to collect. The other teams had collected 179 cubes combined.
It took two days for the committee to announce the winners: the MC team took first place. Team members—and their professor—screamed and jumped when they heard the news.
What’s next for the team? Watch out for robots in the parking lot of the Rockville Campus this summer. The team has applied to participate in the 2018 Swarmathon—and if they are accepted, they will not only test code but assemble NASA-supplied robots right on campus! Watch this space for more information.