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MIT student blogger Piper '13

Space Robots by Piper '13

Here's how I spent my summer.

It’s been a while since I introduced you to MIT (my way, of course).  Since then, I’ve been on the ETOOMUCHADVENTURE side of things – the curse of a blogger’s life, having so much to blog but not enough time to write about it ;)  But summer’s winding down now.  The time has come to catch you guys up on what I’ve been doing.

I will start it with a post about my UROP   ^_^

It all started back in March, when I began poking around for summer UROPs.  I’m Course 6-2 (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), with a heavy interest in biology.  I had intended to get a bioEE UROP – that is probably my ultimate field of study – but then something awesome caught my eye.


I am not sure if my first response was “I WANNA PROGRAM A SPACE ROBOT I WANT A SPACE ROBOTTT!!!!!!” or just simple drooling, but I was hooked on this idea.  In a nutshell, there exist satellites called SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites) in the International Space Station.  They were originally inspired by Star Wars and designed to be used for research on topics like flight formation and docking.  Nowadays, they also serve as vital tools in Zero Robotics, a series of competitions for middle- and high-schoolers, culminating in a NASA-coordinated tournament on the ISS.

The goal of this UROP?  To write a game, teach it to middle schoolers, and help them code a player.  It sounded fantastic, and became my number one UROP choice.  As you might guess, I was lucky enough to join the team of 10 UROPs that made this happen.

Our first order of business?

Okay, so this wasn’t actually our first order of business, but I was paid to launch bottle rockets in Killian Court :D  Our first order of business was actually taking a retreat to a glorious little cabin in Maine to get to know each other, where I also first learned to use a chainsaw.  But, for the month of June, we worked together to code the game the middle schoolers would play, worked out a curriculum to help them learn math and physics along the way, and added activities to keep them engaged.  Thus, bottle rockets!
In July, I started mentoring at my school – the closest one of all, East End House.
^ That was my walk to work every day.
I began to teach my awesome kiddos some fundamental concepts – vectors, Newton’s Laws, etc – and eventually started programming in C.  In the course of a month, we were supposed to turn over a player to compete against the other schools during the finals in the ISS.  For some inspiration, we also brought them over to MIT, showing them…
… our flat floor, where we demo’d some code on some robots we had on the ground …
… the joys of making ice cream with liquid nitrogen …
… and MIT’s very own wind tunnel …
… where it was, in fact, windy.
July went by in a whirlwind.  Coding, the MIT visit, coding, sweat blood and tears, coding, nightmares about semicolons (curse you, C!), and more coding.  Our group was especially pressed for time – and with so many clever and interesting ideas, we had not nearly enough time to test them out.  It was a bit insane, but these kids were good – we turned in a player, and waited anxiously for a little over a week for the competition to take place.  We couldn’t wait to see our code in space.
The day came, and we rolled into 34-101.
It was so exciting!  All the teams were abuzz with competition fever.  We were greeted by our friendly neighborhood astronaut, as well as many of the people who were behind the scenes, coordinating MIT and the schools to make this all happen.  And then, the competition began.
Since the summer and fall versions of the game are quite similar (though the fall is much more difficult, given that it’s made for the high school level), I can’t actually tell you many details abut the game.  But let’s just say, it’s quite fun to see how the satellites communicate, coordinate (whee flight formation!), and act out clever strategies against each other – all from our code.  After rounds upon rounds of watching our code come alive – after a month of coding it – the tournament was over.
Not too shabby ;)
And that was it.  With some final words of congratulations and praise from our new favorite astronaut, the tournament was over.  It was time for celebration, laughs, and eating cake (not a lie).  The kids were full of energy, having just seen their code no really in space (some of them didn’t quite believe it until they got there).  Eventually, we, the UROPs, said goodbye to our schools, and gathered up for a celebration dinner.
In all the craziness of the past two months, we had done it.
Yeah, summer was pretty awesome :D

5 responses to “Space Robots”

  1. Roya says:

    This is really cool. My school’s going to (hopefully) join Zero Robotics this year. I’m so excited!

  2. Brighton says:

    wow, do you also take part in the DAPRA challenge

  3. Abdirahman Ahmed says:

    This is so amazing and great….

  4. Piper '13 says:

    @Roya – Awesome! Good luck smile
    @Brighton – I haven’t, nope. Maybe in a future yet ^_^

  5. Erin says:

    w00t Zero! I was on one of the pilot teams that participated last year, and I’m excited for this year’s competition! Applications go in really soon; I hope we get a chance to do it again. It’s a great experience. ^_^