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Robot swarms aid NASA journey to Mars

(Update: New Mexico teams competed with hundreds of other college students at NASA. Competition details are here.)

The Mars rover Curiosity is in the news right now as NASA celebrates the robot’s five-year sojourn across the planet surface. The rover is sending back breathtaking images and collecting data in anticipation of humans arriving in the 2030s. But before humans arrive, a swarm of smaller robots may already be on the planet, navigating the terrain and working together like a colony of ants to collect resources.

Dr. Melanie Moses, associate professor of Computer Science at The University of New Mexico, developed the robots, nicknamed Swarmies, based on the way ants interact while collecting food for the colony. She and post-doctoral researcher Dr. Matthew Fricke are leading a group of New Mexico post-docs and students preparing for the annual NASA Swarmathon this spring when 24 teams from around the country will compete.

Simulations allow researchers to test a network of robots without having to build a huge fleet of them. Moses said the Center for Advanced Research Computing has been greatly beneficial to the New Mexico group, allowing them to run millions of scenarios with dozens or even hundreds of robots in a swarm before implementing the programming algorithms into the Swarmie hardware.

The Swarmathon is focused on NASA’s Mars mission, and the need for robots to collect resources for astronauts to use when they arrive.

“For example, robots may collect ice, which is found in small patches beneath the Martian surface, and bring it back to the base camp so it can be converted to water, hydrogen fuel, and oxygen to breathe,” Moses said.

Swarmathon participants write code that enables the robots to perform tasks they might do on Mars. They then send out teams of three robots at the Swarmathon, hoping their robots communicate with each other to cooperate and fulfill the task of picking up small blocks.

“One thing that makes this competition different from many robotics competitions is that the group of robots performs its tasks entirely autonomously, as though they were far away on Mars. The students upload their code before competition and then just watch and cheer,” Moses explained.

The Swarmies have the advantage of autonomy and speed over the Mars rovers Curiosity and Opportunity.

“The current Mars rovers are primarily remote-controlled from Earth with very little autonomy. It takes up to 40 minutes to send and receive signals to Mars, so there’s a big delay between each movement of the rovers, which makes it a very, very slow process,” Moses said. It took 11 years for Opportunity to travel about 26 miles, the distance of a marathon. Curiosity traveled 11 miles in five years, stopping to take pictures and examine objects along the way. A team of Swarmies can cover 26 miles in a day.

On the Martian terrain, the smaller, faster, simpler Swarmies also would have the advantage of being able to continue their mission even if one should roll over and become inoperable, according to Kennedy Space Center engineer Kurt Leucht.

The research has more practical aspects that can be put to work closer to home, Moses said. The research could be applied in robots that autonomously search and collect information in natural environments. For example, they could help with hazardous waste cleanup, monitoring pipelines, detecting gas leaks or pollution, finding disaster wreckage, or identifying bombs.

The third annual Swarmathon is set for April 17-19, 2018, at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

For more information about the Swarmathon and New Mexico’s team, check out the NASA Swarmathon website.