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Thursday, January 24 , 2019, 5:43 am | Fair 42º


Crowd Sourcing Algorithms for Mission to Mars

CSU Channel Islands students building robot prototypes for NASA competition

Students Robert Aroutiounian, left, and Thomas Yamasaki work on robot protoypes.
Students Robert Aroutiounian, left, and Thomas Yamasaki work on robot protoypes. (CSU Channel Islands)

Every Friday afternoon, about a dozen computer science students gather in a lab in Sierra Hall at CSU Channel Islands and work for hours on robot prototypes that NASA could someday send to Mars.

“We have about 24 students working on this,” said Jason Isaacs, assistant professor of computer science. “They’re all volunteers. All the students who are here on Friday afternoons want to be here. It’s not for credit, it’s just their own aspirations.”

The students are competing in the Second Annual NASA Swarmathon, a nationwide competition in which NASA selects about 20 teams to create algorithms (instructions for the computer in a robot) for a group of wheeled robots to collect samples on Mars. The team also builds the robots used to test their algorithms and sends them back to NASA.

In April, CSUCI’s Mars Swarmathon team will travel to the NASA Kennedy Space Center where a winner will be named out of all the competing university teams.

“I’m honestly like super-excited and super-blessed I’m able to take on this opportunity,” said Robert Aroutiounian, 21, a computer science and math double major. “That’s one of the things I love about Channel Islands. We are such a small university, so when opportunities like this arise, we hear about it right away, and we can get involved."

The competition is open to minority-serving universities and community colleges. Funded by the NASA Minority University Research Program, the program seeks to ensure that underrepresented and underserved students participate in NASA education and research.

NASA’s objective is to promote research and development of “swarm robotics” algorithms for searching and gathering on Mars. Resources gathered on the red planet would be used to produce fuel for a return trip to Earth.

“Swarm robotics is when you have multiple robots trying to accomplish one task,” said Nicole Dubin, 23. “In this case, they’re getting samples, so they have to work together to accomplish their goal.”

CSUCI students participated in the virtual competition last year, which involved 12 universities, but this is the first year CSUCI has been upgraded to the physical competition, in which teams actually build the robots.

“NASA wants to ‘crowd source’ the algorithm,” Isaacs said. “They could give a bunch of money to one school and have that school develop an algorithm — that’s the conventional way to do research. They’re taking a bit of a different approach.”

The competition is organized by the Moses Biological Computation Lab at the University of New Mexico, which is already doing work on robotic swarms inspired by ants and engineered for exploration.

Designing the algorithms is a labor of love for student Alexandra Collette, 29, who said she has always watched the NASA channel for fun.

“I love everything NASA does. It’s just exciting that there’s a chance our algorithms will be sent up to explore Mars.” Collette said, adding: “I’m retiring on Mars.”

— Kim Gregory for CSU Channel Islands.


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