"Swarmies," the future of space exploration

February 7, 2017

 Imagine if you will the landscape of Mars, uncharted lands with temperatures ranging from 243 degrees below zero to 68 degrees above; formidable rocky landscapes and an unforgiving distance from planet Earth. (For these reasons, NASA has used robotic probes to learn more about Mars.)

 

 

EPCC's NASA Swarmathon team preparing for their competition from April 18-20.

 


In a much more forgiving environment, EPCC’s team for the 2017 NASA Swarmathon Competition is actively contributing to the revolution of space exploration through the application of swarm intelligence on robotic probes.

 

“It’s a more efficient way to explore other planets, or Mars for resources,” explained faculty adviser and Physics professor Erik Valdes.


Teams must use autonomous, pre-built robots that operate autonomously and can be programmed to operate in swarms, hence their nicknames “Swarmies.”


There are two competitions in which teams can participate; a virtual track and a physical track.

 

Beginning teams must enter the virtual competition and develop working algorithms for the Swarmies before entering the physical competition," Valdez said.


“The first stage is using only three robots for both the virtual and physical competition and if you make it to the finals, in the final stage you have more area to cover and six robots,” said Valdes.


 “So your algorithms have to be good enough in any of those situations and it makes sense because if you go to an asteroid, there will be no technician to repair the robots.”


Since the team is not participating in the physical competition this year, they have had to rely on simulators to see how their algorithms work in a practical sense and on the field.

 

 In doing so, much of their work involves trial and error and finding out what changes are needed in their algorithms.

 

“Right now we’re exploring the software, we’re getting to know the software,” said second year student Carolina Rico.

 

“Seeing what works and learning what doesn’t work. We get to see competitions from last year and see what works better.”


Some of the work the team is doing can be compared to modifications for video games that allow users to add, remove, or change aspects of video games to their personal preference.


“Imagine you have a video game but you can go inside the back door of that video game and manipulate the program in order to make it work the way you want, with some constraints,” said Valdes.

 

“It will not work 100 percent the way you want; it may work 70 percent best case scenario.”  


Like video game mods, changing the algorithms can sometimes have varying effects on the programming of the Swarmies. 


While the team is working in the virtual competition, they do have to take into consideration the physical aspects of the competition that will come into play when their algorithms and programming is used on Swarmies.


In this year’s competition, Swarmies will have to find cubes with QR codes, calibrate and align themselves, grip the cubes and continue to gather as many cubes as they can and returning them to the robot’s starting point. 


Difficulties can sometimes arise in this process as Swarmies may drop cubes in attempting to gather them and return them to the starting point. The faster the Swarmies gather the cubes, the more points the team accrues.
While developing technology for space exploration does not directly involve a human element outside of creating the programming necessary for the Swarmies, swarm intelligence can be directly utilized in day-to-day life.
“If all your stoplights are calibrated properly, you will reduce the amount of idle time, you will reduce the amount of carbon emissions, you will reduce the amount of fuel wasted,” explained Valdes.

 
“For example, if you are fixing some parts of the highway, make sure you’re not fixing all of the entrances at the same time; so there’s where you need some artificial intelligence or at least somebody in the science area to verify and make sure if you have some congestion there you have another option.”


In addition, the advent and potential use of swarm technology in the exploration of Mars saves human resources and time.

 

“Let’s say they want to send humans somewhere; they send the robots in first to scan the area to see if it’s worth searching,” said Rico. 


While working on EPCC’s NASA Swarmathon team involves a lot of work, time and energy—with some students dedicating up to six hours a day at times­— the fulfillment of accomplishing personal goals is more than enough reward," Rico said.


“This is something I always wanted to try but at first I wasn’t a student and didn’t have a school to apply with and then I didn’t have a team so it took a while, but now that we’re actually doing it we’re excited to try something new,” said Rico.

 

She also explained how being part of EPCC’s first team in NASA Swarmathon is rewarding.


“For us it’s a new challenge but we’re also opening the door for other students so this is something that we are testing out but we would like people to join us.”


Owing to some unfamiliarity with the competition, there are some nerves that come along with working on the team.

 

Considering as such, the support our Swarmathon team has received along the way has helped in spades.


“Support means a lot to us. Since we’re doing it for the first time it is a little intimidating especially because it’s NASA but we’re giving it a try and if people support us we’ll feel better knowing we’re being supported at all times,” said Rico.


EPCC’s NASA Swarmathon team is open to any students interested in robotics, programming or biology with open availability to dedicate to the team.

 

No experience is necessary but enthusiasm and a desire to learn are.

 

Transcripts are necessary when joining. 

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