Native Engineering Students Take Third in NASA’s Robotic Challenge to Revolutionize Space Exploration

American Indian engineering students from Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute came in third place in a NASA robotics competition in April.

Meet three Extraplanetory Swarmies: Chappie, Eva, and Wally.

The programming of these small robotic vehicles called Swarmies has won a team of American Indian engineering students at Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI) third place in NASA’s first ever Swarmathon National Physical Competition that took place at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NASA engineers, building on research done at the University of New Mexico to develop programs that tell the toy-sized wheeled robots to go out in different directions and search an area for a particular material, issued a challenge to minority STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) students to further develop these cooperative robotics, which NASA predicts will revolutionize space exploration.

“The goals of the competition are to simulate rovers to collect resources prior to the first man landing on Mars, so they will have resources ready and available for them,” SIPI team member Brian Bedonie (Navajo) said in a NASA video of the project.

Each Swarmie is equipped with sensors, a webcam, GPS system and Wi-Fi antenna. The goal of the programming is to have them work on their own to survey an area, then communicate and interact as a collective when they find a cache of something valuable, much the way an ant colony gathers around a food source to divide up the task of collecting the food and taking it back to the nest.

The space agency supplied the SIPI team with three Swarmies, training and instruction, and the opportunity to physically compete against other teams from across the country for up to $5,000 in cash prizes.

The teams competed to improve on the nascent swarm robotics technology by combining new algorithms—self-contained sets of operations to be performed for the robotic swarms, novel hardware and sensors, and traditional computational techniques for search, learning and data aggregation. SIPI team members Bedonie, Sasha Benallie, Daron Tewa, Bradley Kaye, and Emery Sutherland worked with faculty advisors Nader Vadiee and Jonathan West and were rewarded with a beautifully designed bronze trophy for third place, plus $1,000.

Their work was not without its challenges.

“Ultrasound detectors to avoid collisions were interfering with each other, and basically, the sensors were not accurate,” Tewa said, adding that such creative challenges made the work rewarding.

Right now the Swarmies are only searching for barcoded pieces of paper. In the future, robots working around an asteroid or on the moon or Mars could scan the soil for infinitely valuable water-ice or other resources that could be turned into rocket fuel or breathable air for astronauts. Integrated robotic platforms can improve resource retrieval rates by two- to fourfold, compared to the same number of robots operating without cooperation. They also do the work orders of magnitude faster, without recharging, while traversing the same distance that it took the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity 11 years to travel.

Kurt Leucht, an engineer working on the project at Kennedy, said in a statement that one of them can roll over and die, “and it’s not the end of the mission because the others can still accomplish the task.” Leucht said it’s possible that future missions could use this concept in a scaled-up manner to handle any number of robots a mission wants to send into space.

SIPI, in New Mexico, is one of the largest tribal college engineering programs in the United States. Nader Vadiee, director of the three-year, $1.2 million grant awarded to the SIPI engineering program by NASA to build “Information Technology Experiences using a Simulated Tele-science Robotics Exploration of Mars" program, is a mentor for the American Indian Science and Engineering Society (AISES) Full Circle Mentors Program.