SIPI Robotics Team Wins NASA Competition

Apr 28, 2017

A robotics team from the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute in Albuquerque won first place in the national Swarmathon robotics competition at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida last week. Their research could lead to technology which will help astronauts when exploring the Moon or Mars. 

Chrissy Martinez from Laguna Pueblo and Emery Sutherland from the Navajo Nation are members of the team. They spoke with KUNM’s Chris Boros.

KUNM: The competition is about these things called ‘swarmies.’ What are ‘swarmies’ and what do they look like?

Sutherland: They are basically 4-wheeled vehicles, we call them rovers.  But for this competition we call them ‘swarmies’ because they’re supposed to act like insects going around, trying to find resources and then they bring them back home.

KUNM:  Chrissy, what did you do in this research?

Martinez: I helped develop a code for the obstacle avoider. When it sees another rover, it will turn at a certain point and not run into them.

KUNM: Talk about the competition. Who were you competing against and how did it work?

Sutherland: We went up against 19 colleges. There was basically four rounds, the first two rounds [are] where you try to collect as many cubes as you possibly could. They are AprilTag cubes. And AprilTag – think about a bar code, but instead of the bars you have little squares within a larger square – that’s an AprilTag. The 'swarmie' picks up the AprilTag cube and then it brings it home. Whoever collects the largest number of AprilTag cubes wins each round.

Members of the SIPI robotics team at the 2017 Swarmathon competition in Florida. From the left, Emery Sutherland, Ty Shurley, Chrissy Martinez, Nader Vadiee and Schulte Cooke.
Credit SIPI

KUNM: How would these 'swarmies,' these robots, be used in the real world, for instance?

Martinez: Say you want to send one of the swarmies on Mars, they go out there and collect a certain type of resource and bring it back home to the home base. If we provide a code for them, they’ll follow that code to find different resources and bring them back home.

KUNM:  Back home to a base on Mars, not Earth?

Martinez: Yeah.

KUNM: Will NASA use this technology do you think?

Sutherland: We hope they will.

Martinez: I believe so, yeah.

KUNM:  When will you know if your work will one day be being used on Mars?

Sutherland: That will be easy, because we’ll see three robots up there, one will be destroying home, that’s Wall-e. One will actually be doing work, that’s Eva. And then one will be off doing whatever he wants to do, that will be Chappie. [laughter]

Martinez: We’ve named them throughout the competition. We know whose robot it is.

KUNM: How many people are on the team?

Sutherland: Twelve.

KUNM: How did you all work together to win this contest?

Sutherland: UNM and NASA donated three rovers to each competitor. We took all 12 of our team members and broke them up to three teams of four. Each team had their own rover to work with.

KUNM: You didn’t actually build the robot, you built the software?

Martinez and Sutherland: Yes.

KUNM: Chrissy, when did you get interested in science and robotics?

Martinez: My major is Network Management and at SIPI they offered courses for the pre-engineering program. I came up this past spring in a special topics course. I didn’t know what it was until I went to the classroom and it was Swarmathon Robotics. It was surprising. I was like, ‘Yay!’

KUNM: Emery, what about you?  Why robotics? Why science?

Sutherland: I didn’t really care too much for robotics, it wasn’t until I went to SIPI that I started caring about robotics.

KUNM: What’s next for your future? Do you think you’ll keep working in this field? Chrissy, what do you want to do?

Martinez: I want to continue to go for my Bachelor’s Degree in Computer Science and possibly take some pre-engineering classes.

KUNM: Emery, you think you’ll be working at NASA some day?

Sutherland: Some people were asking me [laughter] but I’m still not sure.

KUNM: Maybe we’ll see you up there with the astronauts when we finally land on Mars someday. [laughter]

Martinez: Oh look, there’s Emery!

Sutherland: With my three rovers! [laughter]

Martinez: Eva, Chappie and Wall-e!!

KUNM: And Emery! All on Mars! [laughter]

Credit NASA