Programming Robots in Zero GravityProgramming Robots in Zero Gravity

Programming Robots in Zero Gravity

In late January 2012, more than 100 high school students from across the U.S. had their eyes and ears directed toward Earth’s orbit as participants in the Zero Robotics SPHERES Challenge. The competition finale, which took place at MIT in Cambridge, Mass., on January 26, involved 27 teams of high school students with a penchant for computer science and robotics. Students were charged with programming software codes that enabled miniature basketball-sized satellites, called SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites), aboard the International Space Station to find tools, reach imaginary asteroids and collect a sample of Helium-3 and deposit it in a virtual processing station.

The final heats of the tournament took place aboard the orbiting International Space Station as the competing teams watched live on screens at the MIT campus while astronauts aboard the station tested the teams’ codes. “We thought it would be cool to program robots in space,” admits Matthew Goldman, a senior at Bernards High School in Bernardsville and a member of Storming Robots, an organization in Branchburg that builds students' engineering abilities to prepare them for future competitive markets, especially in engineering fields. Storming Robots was one of the winning teams at the Zero Robotics competition.

The SPHERES competition takes robotics to a different level, one that deals far more with how robots think than how they move. “Often on a high school level, robotics competitions are mechanical, like the FIRST Robotics competition. Students are building industrial quality machines, not artificial intelligence. Zero Robotics is more into artificial intelligence or the intelligence that you create for the robot’s brain,” notes Elizabeth Mabrey, founder of Storming Robots.

“Being able to try to make a computer that can think is interesting,” says Avery Katko, a home-schooled 17-year-old from Long Valley and a member of Storming Robots. “I’m particularly interested in linguistics and in artificial intelligence that can make computers communicate using human language.” Katko takes his passion for linguistics to even greater heights as a hobbyist in conlanging, the art of creating entirely new languages.

Both Goldman and Katko plan to pursue technology-related careers. This and other competitions that Goldman has entered with his Storming Robots team have “definitely increased my interest in computer science,” he says. “I applied to engineering schools and plan to major in computer science.” Adds Katko: “I get to apply all the stuff I learn in math to a real-world thing. Actually making a robot do something is really neat.”