By Mike LaBella
---- — HAVERHILL — A group of students from Haverhill High School reached the finals of a national competition to determine who could best program a robot floating in zero gravity aboard the International Space Station.
This event, called Zero Robotics, culminated last Friday with teams of students from across the country gathering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where they uploaded computer codes to the space station. Astronauts then loaded the programs into robots called SPHERES to decide the winning team.
“We were the only team at the finals from New England,” said Elaine Mistretta, a math teacher who advises the after-school Access21 Robotics program. “Our alliance did not score, but we saw our code run in space on the International Space Station twice by the astronauts. It was an amazing day.”
This is the second year students in the Access21 program competed in the game, and the first time they made it to the finals.
In Zero Robotics, participants compete to win a technically challenging game by programming their strategies into Synchronized Position-Hold Engage Reorient Experimental Satellites, or SPHERES. According to the contest’s website, the game is motivated by a current problem of interest to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) , NASA and MIT.
Up until Friday, senior Nathan Bernard, programming captain for Haverhill Robotics, had only tested his computer code on a computer simulation program provided by the competition.
To better visualize how a robot would operate, Bernard’s team created a cube-shaped model using a metal desk shelf in which they created a wire grid to determine X, Y and Z axis for determining position and distance from virtual objects their robot had to pick up, such as an antenna and fuel.
It required a solid understanding of trigonometry to determine distances and direction within the cube, which represented a room on the space station where the competition played out.
“We had commands to go to a certain position and give it forces for a push, or a torque to make it spin,” Bernard said. “By using the model we could talk about and show where the robot must go and the path it will take.
The computer code that Haverhill’s team helped create had to control satellite speed, rotation, direction of travel and other features. And depending on the game premise, they had to program their satellites to complete game objectives such as navigating obstacles and picking up virtual objects, while conserving resources such as fuel and electrical charge and staying within specified time and code-size limits. The programs are “autonomous” in that students could not control the satellites during the test itself. Two SPHERES at a time competed for points in the confines of he space station
The competition began online, with 96 teams competing online to solve an annual challenge guided by mentors. After several phases of virtual competition for points, teams from 27 high schools from across the country were named finalists and formed “alliances” composed of three teams each.
“They combined the best of their code and that final code was run to determine who made it to the finals,” Mistretta said.
The top nine alliance teams competed last Friday at MIT, where through a live feed to the astronauts ran the code on the actual SPHERES devices.
Sophomore John Sanders, programming co-captain, said the competition allowed for creative interaction with the other two teams in his alliance: Team Betaware from a high school in Virginia and Team Plasma from a high school in Arizona.
“We collaborated with them on our code through video chat every other week as well as on Facebook every day,” Sanders said. “Betaware scored highest in the alliance rounds and picked us to be on their team. We used their code to begin and added our code to make it better. Plasma helped a lot with the math.”
Senior Kayli Wilkinson just started programming this year and instead of writing code, she helped with strategy as her team’s robot had to go up against another team’s robot to find a virtual antenna and fuel.
Bernard said the best thing about this competition, other than the prestige of being a finalist, was that it didn’t cost his school anything.
“It’s something great to put on our resume,” said Bernard, who indicated he’s applied to MIT in hopes of studying computer science there.
Mistretta said Haverhill High didn’t have to pay for the software because of support by NASA and DARPA, an agency of the U.S. Dept. of Defense.
“That makes it very attractive to have it free to students,” she said. “Without funding getting in the way, it allows all schools to participate.”
“Participating in this event makes you an extremely good candidate for very good colleges,” Mistretta added. “A lot of these kids want to go on for computer science, engineering, aerospace, which can be hard to get into, but our kids do get into great programs at great universities. It’s really quite a math feat as well.”
Team Haverhill Robotics members:
Nathan Bernard, programming captain; John Sanders, programming co-captain; Josh DiMattia, Moble app team captain; David Brady, documentation captain; Brianna Greenlaw, project engineer; Felicia Bonvie, freshman programming captain; Seth Kary, website host, as well as Norah Cowley, Keishya Morillo, Kaylie Wilkinson, Darren Joaseph, Jeff Conner, Bryce Spencer, Paula Trebicka, Jayden Gamble and Alexandra Kennedy. Coaches: Elaine Mistretta and Cliff Ashbrook. Access21 is an after school funded activity.