Monday, July 11, 2016

Spring time at Kennedy Space Center = robots! NASA #Swarmathon and Robotic Mining Competition @Swarmathon @NASARMC @SpaceFlorida

April/May is competition season in Florida with a gambit of activities surrounding the end of the school year for most colleges and universities. Two of these competitions were hosted by +NASA Kennedy at the +Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex: NASA Swarmathon and +NASA Robotic Mining Competition. Below are a few highlights from my experience as a Robot Wrangler and Mining Judge on behalf of Space Florida, but be sure to check out the competition websites for more information on how to get involved.

Say nice things to your robot. The Forth Law of Robotics?

NASA Swarmathon

The Swarmathon philosophy in a nutshell: two is better than one, if you can code them. The goal of the competition is eloquently summarized with an example on their website saying:
The goal of the NASA Swarmathon competition is to develop integrated robotic platforms that improve resource retrieval rates by 2–4 fold, compared to the same number of robots operating without cooperation, and orders of magnitude faster than solitary robots.  For example, 20 Swarmies can travel and search 42 km of linear distance in 8 hours without recharging; that’s the distance covered in a marathon, and the same distance traveled by the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity in 11 years.
Teams were challenged to program six identical robots to work together to seek and "collect" tags on the ground representative of collecting resources during planetary exploration. Each tag was a square QR code that the robot would have to scan and then bring the code back to the center point to score 1 point before returning to the field. The teams were not given any of the location information except the central starting position and the approximate arena size. As a Robot Wrangler for the event, my role was simple and glorious. If a robot got stuck, flipped, or lit itself on fire, I would jump into action to get it back in the game. There was one intervention needed by the multiple wranglers, but I ended up being Vanna White for the score board and had my hands full. The finals turned into an impressive blowout with a record of 120 tags being collected. The runner up had some issues, well running into walls. Teams learned about robust coding strategies during the design process and then from each other at the event. NASA also gains valuable knowledge by learning about each team's creative process and algorithms. This was the inaugural year and I look forward to seeing how the event will improve in the years to come.

NASA Robotic Mining Challenge

This past RMC was the 7th year of the competition with just under 50 teams form around the USA with custom robots designed to dig and transfer regolith, a.k.a. fake Moon/Mars dirt and ice. As a Mining Judge, my second year in the role (4th as a volunteer for Space Florida), I worked with others to collect data on the amount of regolith transferred from the digging zone to the collection bin. I had to keep an eye out for rule infractions or flaming robots, yes some starting smoking and I had to jump into action to hit the emergency stop buttons. We recorded how "dusty" the robot's driving, digging and transfer of regolith were, which is relevant for surface operations and resource recovery. In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) is the primary focus of the competition and the Journey to Mars to enable technologies for us to "live off the land". +NASA gets to see ~50 unique solutions to this piece of a greater puzzle for exploration and observe them in action. A few examples include: learning about what wheel shape works best; if a scoop is better than an auger drill; and what autonomous strategies work best to minimize ground control interventions or monitoring.

Michael Johansen from Swamp Works and I were "promoted" to Arena Judges A and B as there was a shortage of respirator-trained volunteers. The two of us spent an average of 8 hours a day in bunny suits for all 5 days supporting the competition. Fun fact: my call sign "KOB1" is a mix of my last name (Kobrick), the lunar simulant named OB1 (we are using BP1 in the competition), and of course Star Wars (Obi-Wan).

U. Utah In the field (past orange line) digging regolith.

L to R: Mining Judge Arena B Michael Johansen, Chief Judge Rob Mueller, Mining Judge Arena A (me); KSC Center Director / former Astronaut Bob Cabana.

Of course I always have my coffee while watching the morning radar on the Moon at NASA RMC, everybody knows that.

ERAU Team transferring regolith the the collection bin for points. Their wheels won a special judges award for regolith mechanics.

I created a public photo album on Facebook to share moments each day from "Inside the Glass" (URL). Videos of robots in motion during the competition provide a wealth of feedback about how they operate in a relevant environment, both in failure and success. I took as many short videos as possible while scoring the team performance and regolith transferring results from Arena A. The YouTube playlist below includes all of these videos from 2016.

Space! (with robots!)

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