UNM computer science prof starts national robotics Swarmathon event with NASA

UNM team heads to Swarmathon event

Preparation for the journey to Mars is happening closer to home than you may think. University of New Mexico Computer Science Professor Melanie Moses is the principal investigator and founder for the NASA Swarmathon, a robotic competition at Kennedy Space Center.

Founded in 2016, the NASA Swarmathon is a swarm robotics programming challenge is a cooperative agreement between the NASA Minority University Research and Education Program and the University of New Mexico Moses Biological Computation Lab. The second Swarmathon takes place at the Kennedy Space Center April 18-20, 2017.

Swarm robotics is the coordination of multiple robots to act with a collective behavior that is determined by coding. The robots then rely on communication between each other to respond to changes within the swarm or within the environment in which the robots are working.

Melanie Moses

Because the robots act autonomously from humans with the programmed code, swarm robots can find and collect resources without human supervision or maps. This capability could be used to clean up hazardous waste, rescue humans from dangerous areas to collect frozen water, minerals and other materials to support human space exploration. The swarm robots used in the Swarmathon, called Swarmies, mimic the movement of ants that Dr. Moses and her team of students developed.

“My research focuses on biologically inspired algorithms, computer code that mimics things that happen in the natural world,” Dr. Moses said. “Specifically we focus on how cooperation emerges among ants without any particular ant in charge.”

The team was able to develop the algorithm by tracking and marking the path of individual ants and looking at general group movement behaviors. Joshua Hecker, a student studying with Moses, took on this project as his doctoral thesis. He used a simulation that described ant movement patterns as they foraged foraging as the foundation for a search algorithm for a team, or “swarm” of small robots. Dr. Hecker and other students in the Moses lab designed and built the iAnts.  

Their computer algorithms allowed the robots to remember the location of resources and communicate so that they could search effectively without human supervision. This could be used in future space travel to retrieve resources on the moon or mars, even working to build a habitat.

From that original design of the robot, Dr. Moses and her team developed the competition robots called Swarmies. Swarmies are small robotic vehicles equipped with sensors, a webcam, GPS systems and a Wi-Fi antenna. They measure 30 cm x 20 cm x 20 cm and can be programed to communicate and interact as a collective swarm, according to NASAawarmathon.com

Moses applied for a grant through NASA to start the Swarmathon. The grant was awarded and 424 students from across the country participated in the competition last year.

The 2017 UNM Swarmathon team.

“One goal of our competition was to compare our ant-inspired algorithm with other approaches that the competing teams develop” Moses said.

The Swarmathon consists of two competitions, a physical competition focused on integrating swarm algorithms with existing hardware and a simulated competition focused on algorithm development.

For the physical competition, each school team is provided with three Swarmie kits to develop and test algorithms. The code created is then sent to Kennedy Space Center where the code is tested on robots at the space center to see which algorithm is able to locate the highest number of resources in a given time.

The simulated competition does not use Swarmie hardware, but instead challenges students to develop search algorithms and use the code in a simulated online environment. Teams in the simulated competition will also be judged on which algorithm is able to locate the highest number of resources in a specified time.  

Since receiving the funding from NASA, Swarmie research has become the dominant topic of research Moses’ lab at UNM. UNM students designed and built the original robots, designed the software that runs on the robots and provide competing teams basic code to give them a baseline to build on.

Follow the UNM team on Instagram @UNMSwarmathon.