A team of four Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute students won the grand prize at the 2017 NASA Swarmathon in Orlando, Florida. They competed against 20 other college teams, who each developed computer code used by swarms of robots to autonomously find and collect resources in an arena without human supervision or maps.
To do this, the students had to create new algorithms (rules encoded in computer programs) that could be used by the robot swarms for other applications, like cleaning up hazardous waste.
“Computer scientists have not yet figured out how to program robots to interact autonomously with unanticipated events in the real world,” Professor Melanie Moses, who runs the Swarmathon, said in a press release. Successful teams programmed robots to cooperate even when noise and errors caused unexpected behavior.
“My experience with the Swarmathon team has been a great learning opportunity that I am proud to be a part of,” said Chrissy Martinez, from the Southwest Indian Polytechnic Institute team that won third place in the 2016 Swarmathon and the grand prize in the 2017 event.
As part of the grand prize, the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute team was awarded a check for $5,000 from NASA. The team also won the Gold Mars Trophy for the physical competition.
“Well done to the brilliant students at SIPI. These young people are breaking new ground and making everyone proud,” Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke said in a press release. “I look forward to following their budding careers in STEM and expect them all to make an impact.”
More than 500 students from 40 colleges and 30 high schools competed during the event this year held from April 18-20 at the Kennedy Space Center.
“Placing at the top of the 2017 NASA Swarmathon is an outstanding achievement for the students on the team, the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute faculty and students, the Bureau of Indian Education,” said Acting Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Michael S. Black. “These students exemplify how dedication to studies can translate into real life success.”
Dr. Nader Vadiee and Dr. Jonathan West both served as the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute NASA Swarmathon team faculty advisors.
More than 1,000 students from Minority Serving Institutions—like historically black colleges and universities, Hispanic serving institutions, and tribal colleges—have participated in the Swarmathon since 2015. The Swarmathon is administered under a partnership between the NASA Minority University Research and Education Program and the University of New Mexico.