PCC students began to prepare for their redemption at the 2017 NASA Swarmathon as soon as the school year started. After a mediocre first attempt, the students began training for their next attempt at the gold.
The NASA Swarmathon is a national robotics convention that is held at the NASA Kennedy Space Center in Titusville, Florida. Twelve community colleges participate in the competition. They are sent three “swarmie” robots and are tasked to pick up a small orange box using a robotic arm for the upcoming Swarmathon. The box must then be dropped off at “home base.”
“There was a huge arena with a whole bunch of robots and these robots are just going around picking up tags,” club president David Wu said. “There’s doctors everywhere just giving speeches and they are so professional; it just makes you feel so insignificant.”
After 13 students attended the Swarmathon, computer science professor Jamal Ashraf and the competitors decided to form a club in order to pass on programming skills for students participating in the next two competitions. The club was not only designed for students seeking to participate in the competition, it is also for students who have a passion for robots.
“We want to show them how to program robots so they can go off and do it themselves,” Wu said. “We don’t just want to use them, we want to also teach them.”
Members of the club are encouraged to either work on the software or hardware aspects of the programming to ensure the code runs perfectly.
Ashraf was approached by the the faculty of University of New Mexico, the organizers of the Swarmathon, and was asked if PCC students would like to participate.
“Even though I knew about swarmies concept through my readings, I was not familiar with Swarmathon project before talking to the UNM faculty,” Ashraf wrote in an email.
In the last competition, PCC students used Python, a generic programming language, while the other teams used C++, which is a higher level program that better suits the competition. The team spent most of last year actually learning how to code which was part of the reason why they placed seventh out of 12 in the last Swarmathon. The team did place first in the outreach portion.
The swarmies that the groups are sent have a small camera in the front and are equipped with sonar sensors so they don’t bump into anything. They also contain GPS navigation and are inspired by the way ants move. Much like ants, they return to remembered locations and speak to one another.
The returning team as well as the new members plan to come back to the competition stronger than ever and show the other eleven teams what they are made of. They return to the competition in spring and plan to win first place as well as the $5,000 prize that accompanies it.