This year, for the first time, a Nantucket High School team participated in NASA’s Space Robotics Challenge, a prize competition that, according to its’ website, has a “$1,000,000 total prize purse to be divided among teams that develop computer software to increase the autonomy of dextrose humanoid robots.” NHS’ ‘Team Whalers,’ comprised of math teacher and advisor Jedediah Williams and seniors Evan Borzelleri and Natty Davidson, who placed 8th overall in the qualifying round out of 450 teams from around the world - a notable achievement.
Williams shed some light on the details of the challenge.
“NASA holds what it calls ‘Centennial Challenges’ every year,” he said. “The past five years, the NASA Centennial Challenge has been held at Worcester Poly Tech (WPI), and it’s been the ‘Sample Return Challenge.’ For that, teams had to build robots that would go out into a field on the WPI campus and autonomously collect samples of various objects - an old orange tennis ball, a white ice cube looking thing - it just had to pick a bunch of stuff up without any human controls. That ran for a few years and then ended, and now there's a new challenge which is the NASA Space Robotics Challenge. It’s a virtual challenge, so it’s all done in software. We are programming a real NASA robot, the Valkyrie R-5, virtually, on the computer.”
The qualifying round, which started in October, required all participating teams to complete two complex tasks.
“Those tasks were to watch a computer console and record the sequence of blinking lights that it saw and report the 3-D coordinates of those points using a LiDAR, which is a laser range finder kind of like radar but with a laser,” explained Williams. “The second task was to walk up to a door, open the door, and go through it - which is much more complicated, technically, then it sounds. What it came down to in the qualifying round was could you record the sequence of lights? Yes or no. The top 20 teams that could do that were chosen by how quickly [they] could do the second task.”
While the NHS Tech Club has not been involved in writing the software for the Valkyrie R-5 Robot, members of the club have had a role in the challenge.
“For instance, the computers that we ran the simulations on were built by Tech Club back in October and this new computer which we’re going to use for the finals that is going to be our server is also being built by Tech Club.
So Tech Club itself has been involved in helping out, but Team Whalers has been separate and is mostly extracurricular.”
Williams also discussed the virtual competition.
“We were able to cross the starting line, hit the button on the door, walk through the door, and cross the finish line in like eight seconds. There were four teams who did it in crazy fast times because they discovered a functionality that the robot had that we didn’t know about. They were able to swing the arms of the robot while it was walking so they could balance it better and hurl the robot through the door as fast as they could.”
One fact that attests to the difficulty of this task is that to be successful, you do not have to be able to complete the simulation reliably a repeated number of times. For instance, according to Williams, Team Whalers “ran this [simulation] thousands of times and just took the fastest time that worked. It fell over, like 98% of the time. It was just a matter of [getting] at least one successful run as fast as possible [to be] in the top 20.”
The purpose of these centennial challenges is to provide NASA engineers with new software to help operate their Valkyrie R-5 Robot. Williams elaborated on this, explaining that “NASA has the hardware for this remarkably sophisticated robot, but it doesn’t have the software fully developed for it yet. These challenges are meant to entice teams into helping them develop the software. The winners of this competition will be invited to visit and help them develop some software for to Valkyrie R-5 Robot. Our goal really was to make the top 20 and we did. I don’t really anticipate, given the competition that we’re up against, [that we will place] in the top three; however, there’s a million dollars worth of prize money available of which we will see very little, if any. Borzelleri spoke to the long term importance of holding these challenges.
“The point of this project is to prepare for human travel to Mars,” he said. “The whole concept behind it is that we’re programming robots to set up Mars’ habitats so that the environments would already be set up for the astronauts when they get [there]. So it would save them a lot of time, and a lot of fuel, and just a lot of development.”
In the final round, Team Whalers must complete three more tasks that incrementally increase in technical difficulty. According to Williams, “we have to fix the orientation of a communications dish that’s pointed the wrong direction, we have to pull a solar panel off the back of a Mars rover and lay it in the correct location and plug it in, and then we have to walk up some stairs to a Mars habitat, find an air leak, and then repair the leak. On competition day in mid-June, we will remotely connect to a server where NASA will be running the simulation software, and we just have to remotely control Valkyrie to complete these three new tasks. There are a lot of technical details involved. For instance, they limit the bandwidth - meaning how much data we can send between us and the server - which is to simulate the reality of speaking with a robot on Mars. There’s also a delay because Mars is far enough away that it takes light time a noticeably long time to reach. So when we send a message to the robot, they're going to simulate sending the message to Mars so we have to wait quite some time to hear back to see if our command worked or not.”
Given the smaller group of participants, heightened competition, and more intensive set of tasks, the team is not expecting to finish first.
“Seeing how I didn’t really expect we’d even get here, anything would be good,” said Borzilleri. “I think we certainly stand a shot at coming in the top… whether or not that actually happens, who knows, but we’ll try just as much as we did in the previous challenge.”
Williams feels similarly, and emphasized the high level of competition that Team Whalers is up against. “Anyone can register for the competition,” he said. “We are competing against university students in robotics labs… we are not competing against other high schoolers.”
Regardless of the outcome of the final round, Team Whalers is thrilled that they have already surpassed the goal they set for themselves in October. “There’s still so much to do in it compared to other fields,” said Borzilleri. “In Robotics... honestly, you can do whatever you can put your mind to. I can say I want to build a robot to open the door, or to climb stairs, or build a robot that will scan an environment, and create a map, and tell me where to go. I mean the sky’s the limit with Robotics.”