The Fayetteville State robotics team attended the second annual NASA Swarmathon competition this year at the Kennedy Space Flight Center in Florida. The competition was pretty interesting, and I learned a great deal while we were there. While we did not win the competition, we did pick up some new ideas for next time. Our robots picked up a fair number of cubes, and mostly returned them close to home, so figuring out a way to return them to the actual center needs to be addressed in a better way. We also had an issue with one robot getting stuck in the home base and being unable to get out. The robots are programmed to treat the April tags in the center like an obstacle to be avoided unless they have a cube actively in their gripper. After they drop it, they’re supposed to leave the area. If they cross that barrier for any other reason, they get trapped inside, turning around constantly, looking for a way out. While they are doing that, they knock any previously accumulated block out of the collection zone. We noticed this behavior in both of the heats that we were in. One of the NASA engineers that we talked to suggested that one of the ways that other teams handled that particular problem was to keep a record of the angle that was turned, and once a complete circle is attempted, the robot can potentially get stuck in a loop. To prevent that, we should have the robot drive forward slowly, and hopefully it will clear the center without knocking too many blocks out. Another behavior that we noticed was that in both heats, one of the robots would just start spinning and not stop during the entire heat. The behavior isn’t related to the center problem, but could probably be handled in the same way. In the end, we placed 11th out of 19 in the competition. It wasn’t a great performance, but I believe that if we address the issues that I listed, we should do much better next year.
I have a few suggestions for improvement next year. We had a lot of problems with the physical robots this year which lead us to rely too heavily on the simulations. We should have tested with the physical robots more often, to discover more of the errors that the real world produces. We also need a better space to test in. Currently, the only place that is big enough to test the robots in is a parking lot, but they are far from any power source, and we need wifi to communicate with the robots. The team needs to be better about communicating with the University of New Mexico (UNM) when we need replacement parts. There was some miscommunication this year, in that we thought that we had to make do with the parts that we already had, even if they were broken. Another area that we could improve on is social media posting. We need to have a social media coordinator on the outreach team. This person’s responsibilities would include attending all the outreach and physical team events, and posting to social media sites in an effort to communicate to the school and the rest of the world about the work that our teams are doing. This endeavor is worthy of notice, so we should have someone dedicated to posting about it.
Overall, the trip was a very good experience. We were able to go inside the NASA park that the competition was held at, and explore their exhibits. Arguably the most valuable experience was the intern Q & A. We got to hear from some of the internship coordinators about ways that we can apply, and they even had suggestions for ways of discussing experience even if you don’t have a lot of relevant “real world” work experience. They currently have two internship types. NASA Intern, Fellowship and Scholars (NIFS) is the temporary internship that last for about 10 weeks during the summer months or 16 weeks during the fall/spring semesters. The other internship type is called Pathways, and can lead to permanent employment. The Pathways internships are also split into two categories: not-to-exceed (NTE) year long appointments, and year long appointments without a NTE cap. After successful completion of a non NTE appointment, an applicant can be eligible to convert to full time employment with NASA. For any of the internships, the applicants must be-a US citizen, have at least a 3.0 GPA and be attending an accredited institution. NASA provides a website at https://intern.nasa.gov to apply for the NIFS internship. To apply for the Pathways internship, you would go to https://www.usajobs.gov. There are 10 main NASA locations that you could potentially work at; all of them post to their internship opportunities on those two sites.