UNM partners with NASA for national robotics competition

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (KRQE) – They may be small, but NASA says that’s the point. Swarm robots could be the missing link to collecting valuable resources in outer space. Now, a partnership with the University of New Mexico has them one step closer to figuring out how.

To some, computer code is merely a mashup of letters and symbols. To others, it’s the key to sending humans to Mars.

“Searching for things is a really crucial task when you think about preparing the surface of Mars for humans to arrive there,” said UNM Associate Professor of Computer Science Melanie Moses.

That’s where students from across the country and one local university enter into the equation.

“Their task was to develop a software that would control these robots to have them travel around and search for these QR tags,” said Moses.

Moses is also the manager of a swarm robotics competition called the Swarmathon. It’s a NASA-sponsored, nationwide event geared towards universities with students often under-represented in computer science.

The premise was simple.

“The team that collected the most tags would win,” said Moses.

Yet, the execution is much more difficult.

“It was quite a challenge to get these rovers moving,” said Moses.

One team member described the project as a “team effort of pain.”

Students say writing code is tough and creating one that makes swarm robots do exactly what you want can seem impossible.

“I’m not frustrated, I’m lost,” said one participant.

In his team’s submission video, another student said he was surprised as to how much work students were willing to devote to their submission.

“We were amazed to see what a great job they did,” said Moses.

Central New Mexico Community College took second place.

Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque took third place.

“We had a lot of challenges and a lot of good results that came out of this,” said one SIPI participant.

“These students are often young students who haven’t had a lot of programming experience yet,” explained Moses. “They’re really motivated to get in there and learn all of these things.”

The result?

“Algorithms people have not tried before,” said Moses.

That means new ideas for NASA.

“Some of our ideas could potentially be used in the future for trips to Mars or to establish a permanent base on the moon,” said student and Swarmathon participant Michael Backus.

Moses says swarm robots are ideal when it comes to scouring a planet’s surface for resources because they allow you to search a larger area than one big rover. That’s because there’s less concern about a single robot failing. Plus, if these robots are programmed to communicate with each other, they can better work to collect resources.

Students are already preparing for next year’s Swarmathon. The call for applications is coming up in just a few months.

Correction: In the original broadcast version of the story, it was mistakenly reported that SIPI finished in 2nd in the competition and CNM in 3rd. The correct information is reflected in the online version of the story.

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