Santa Cruz Tech Beat


Cabrillo College Wins NASA Swarmathon


June 29, 2019 — Aptos, CA

Cabrillo Edges Out 23 Other Colleges and Universities in Competition’s Fourth and Final Year

Cabrillo College today announced that its Robotics Club has won the NASA Swarmathon, a nationwide autonomous robotics competition with the goal of advancing future space exploration. Cabrillo received the award at the NASA Swarmathon Workshop and Awards Ceremony held at the Kennedy Space Center June 11-13.

Cabrillo has participated in the NASA Swarmathon since 2016, when it entered a field of 20 universities and colleges. Cabrillo won the virtual competition, in which participants wrote code for the rover and the code was executed in a simulator. In 2017 and 2018 the Cabrillo Robotics Club was invited to enter the physical competition, in which participants build robot kits and program the robots with algorithms to go out and forage for resources in the form of coded blocks to bring back to the nest.

For NASA Swarmathon IV, the virtual and physical competitions were combined, and evaluation of the participating teams’ coding was performed at the University of New Mexico in May, 2019. The awards ceremony, workshop, and behind-the-scenes tours were held at the Kennedy Space Center June 11-13, 2019.

“I couldn’t be more proud of so many students who gave enormous amounts of their time to make the team successful,” said Cabrillo Robotics Club Faculty Advisor Michael Matera. “Over the course of three years of competition, we struggled to understand how complex and error-prone navigating the world is, and we learned a lot, each time improving our design, culminating in this year’s win.”

The code that ultimately won the competition was written by two Computer Information Systems (CIS) students, Carter Frost and Darren Churchill. Carter created software that systematically tested every code change. As soon as the change was checked in Carter’s software, the team tested it against scores of different simulated worlds to see if the changes had unintended side effects, proving that the final code was solid and error-free.

Not yet satisfied with how one of the key sensors in the robot performed, Darren did a lot of research and found a way to calibrate the sensor in a way that removed systematic errors. The consequence of that fix was revolutionary – with calibrated sensors Cabrillo’s rovers could navigate with accuracy that was two orders of magnitude better than the other teams. This allowed Cabrillo to make maps of obstacles and enabled the team to travel through complicated spaces with very high confidence. This year’s course was hardest yet. In the final round, the second-place team collected five resources; Cabrillo’s team collected 20 resources.

“This [Cabrillo] is the best swarming team that we’ve seen over the past four years of the competition,” said Professor Melanie Moses, the Principal Investigator for the NASA Swarmathon. “Their amazing engineering skills and algorithms went into winning this award, and all of this work will advance the future of space exploration.”

Faculty Advisor Michael Matera and CIS student Darren Churchill attended the Swarmathon Workshop at the Kennedy Space Center, during which the Cabrillo Robotics team received its first-place award, that included a $2,000 check and a gold ‘Swarmie’ trophy.

Watch a video clip of the award ceremony:


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