More opportunities to program robots in space

Kerri Carr

The opportunity for high school students to learn to program robots used in space has widened this year.

Sydney University is more than doubling the number of school teams it sponsors to participate in the global robotics challenge, Zero Robotics.

In preparing teams for the Zero Robotics Competition, Sydney University graduate or undergraduate students in engineering or information technology mentor the school teams, helping to teach them how to program the NASA SPHERES robots to autonomously carry out a series of tasks.

They guide teams through learning to code plus the maths, physics and engineering behind how the robots move in micro-gravity aboard the International Space Station. Students also develop teamwork, communication and project planning skills. Uniquely, the teams are required to form international alliances in the later stages of the competition, helping to develop international collaboration skills.

Teams test their code on a web-based simulator where two simulated robots, each loaded with their team’s code, race to complete a challenge and score the most points.

The competition rounds are conducted using this online simulator, with thousands of matches occurring between teams all over the world. The championship round is conducted on the International Space Station, where the competing teams have their code uploaded to the actual soccer-ball sized NASA robots to compete under the supervision of astronauts.

“The competition is a fantastic chance for students to learn programming, physics, maths, engineering and robotics skills even if they don’t make it as far as having their code running on board the space station,” Zero Robotics Australia coordinator and Sydney University PhD student Benjamin Morrell said.

He stresses there are no costs for the schools that participate and it is not critical for the teacher or students to know about coding in order to participate: “All you need is a computer, an internet connection, a group of motivated students and a teacher prepared to meet regularly with the students.” A total of 175 teams from across the globe competed in the most recent Zero Robotics Championship, with 14 international alliances of three teams making it to the final round on the International Space Station.

North Sydney Boys High School’s alliance with a Romanian and US team finished second and Gosford High School, aligned with two US teams, came equal third in the championship round. A further alliance that included Fort Street and James Ruse Agricultural high schools also had their code run in space.

For more details please click here. June 9 is the deadline for applications, but organisers recommend getting in contact earlier.