Australian high school students took control of NASA robots on the International Space Station last week, during the 2016/17 Zero Robotics Championship Final, run by the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies.
The competition, which began in May last year and progressed through multiple rounds of increasing complexity, challenged participants to test their coding skills on NASA robots known as SPHERES (Synchronized, Position, Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites).
Finals were held on the International Space Station, and streamed around the world, on Friday 27 January. In Australia, local teams gathered to watch the finals event at a special celebration held at the University of Sydney’s Camperdown campus.
Supported by the University of Sydney, 20 high school teams from across NSW participated in the competition, with five of the teams (Barker College, Fort St High School, Gosford High School, James Ruse Agricultural High School and North Sydney Boys High School) getting the opportunity to participate in the championship event.
In the final showdown, the team from North Sydney Boys High School led an alliance with crews from the US and Romania to fine-tune their code that took control of the SPHERES on the International Space Station, and then watched live as the astronauts set up the SPHERES for them to compete against each other in challenges. The team made it through to the championship match and took out second place overall in the competition.
This is educational value-adding at its absolute best.
As North Sydney Boys team leader Ben Wang explains, the achievement was unexpected, as the team were actually the last team to make it to the ISS.
“I think being the last team to make it to the ISS is what motivated us to completely rethink our strategy, from a more general one to a more specific one tailored to the strategies of the top teams on the leaderboards, and it seems that the new strategy gave us a boost from 14th to 2nd,” he said.
“Zero Robotics is a valuable experience with fun and engaging game mechanics,” added team mate Richard Jin.
Ben also attributed his team’s success to the assistance of their mentor Jeremy Cox from the University of Sydney.
“Our fantastic mentor, Jeremy, was very helpful, providing assistance in person and by email to discuss any strategies, math or code,” he said.
Following closely behind was the Gosford High School team, whose alliance with two US teams finished in third place overall.
“Watching the games was far more intense and interesting than I had thought it would be. I have probably watched hundreds of simulations by now, but, seeing it actually happen and actually mean things was a new, and great, experience,” said Gosford team member James Wright.
Gosford High School Computer Coordinator Neal McFarlane said it was incredibly rewarding to see his students work recognised in such a unique and special way.
“Programming robots in space is a big enough hook to draw in most teenagers, but these students received direct and positive feedback on their work from actual astronauts aboard the International Space Station, in real time! This is educational value-adding at its absolute best,” he said.
“At least three of my school leaving students have altered their education pathways and/or clarified their future direction as a direct result of their involvement in Zero Robotics 2016.”
Benjamin Morrell, Zero Robotics Australia Coordinator from the University of Sydney, said the whole event was a huge success.
“For those teams who made it to the space station, this is a profound achievement and it was great to see that the students got a big kick out of seeing their code in space. Hopefully this incredible accomplishment marks a strong start to the school year” he said.
The James Ruse team also commented that participating in the competition helped them consider the potential of future robotics developments.
“Some of us are considering following through with mechatronics, engineering, or physics degrees in our university experience, but regardless of our future pathways we now all have a much deeper appreciation of the future and potential of robotics,” they said.