Pasadena City College is participating in Swarmathon, a robotics competition organized by the University of New Mexico and funded by the NASA Minority University Research and Education Program, in which students will create robots called “Swarmies” designed for planetary exploration.

Students involved in the program will work together at their school to incorporate swarm technology, which operates similarly to the behavior of ants, into rovers deployed in missions by NASA. Hypothetically, these robots would communicate with one another and work in groups as a more productive means to learning about unexplored areas of Earth and other planets.

PCC was chosen as one of 12 schools to compete in Swarmathon out of a wide selection of community colleges and universities. Teams were put together based on the technical experience of faculty that would be overseeing students.

The competition acts as a gateway for those who lack experience in robotics, advertising computer science as a major and NASA as a career route.

“I’m not a robotics person, but I’m interested in the programming side,” said student Eli Selkin. “This is new for me. It’s nice that they’ve created a competition for something that might get used. I’m excited that it gives PCC students the ability to say they can accomplish something.”

PCC will be competing against the 11 other schools for a cash prize of $5,000. A team will win depending on the amount of resources collected during the live competition which will take place this April at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Through participating, students are eligible to apply for research internships.

Teams will be working with three Swarmies each and will go through training before they begin their parts.

Students at PCC are finding out about the competition through computer science instructor Jamal Ashraf, who will be working with the team to program codes in robots in order for them to communicate with each other.

“They want to get the schools and students interested in NASA and robotics, and they want to hear out-of-the-box ideas,” said Ashraf. “That’s why they want students who aren’t experts in coding all the way to students who know coding.”

Melanie Moses, a professor at the University of New Mexico, is the Principal Investigator of the Swarmathon Challenge. She and her students are responsible for conceiving Swarmathon as a way to build upon research conducted by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate in Washington.

“NASA is funding this challenge because successful space exploration, for example, the mission to Mars, will require robots to gather resources such as ice that can provide water and hydrogen fuel, or materials for constructing human shelters,” said Moses. “Ultimately, successful algorithms that students develop could help revolutionize the use of swarm robots in space exploration.”

The program is expected to last from 2016 to 2018, meaning the teams of students working with the Swarmies will change over time, allowing research to advance while benefitting NASA as they are open to learning from student work. Students who do well on their part are hoped to return to the program in following years.


PCC students reach for stars earns spot in NASA program

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