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NSW teens control NASA robots on the International Space Station

12 January 2018
Code written by high schoolers used to control robots in space
Students from five New South Wales schools controlled NASA robots on the International Space Station as part of the global Zero Robotics international coding competition.
The James Ruse Agricultural High School team with former NASA astronaut Gregory Chamitoff.

The James Ruse Agricultural High School team with former NASA astronaut Gregory Chamitoff.

In the early hours of this morning, teams from five New South Wales high schools – Gosford High School, James Ruse Agricultural High School, Mosman High School, Sydney Boys High School and Sydney Technical High School – watched as computer code they had written was used to control NASA robots inside the International Space Station (ISS).

The students gathered with parents, teachers and space enthusiasts to watch the 2017/18 championships of the Zero Robotics international high school programming competition, organised by NASA and top tech university Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The competition was live-streamed across the globe, including at an on-campus University of Sydney event.   

Watch the Zero Robotics highlights

The Zero Robotics competition challenged students to test their coding skills on basketball-sized NASA robots known as SPHERES (Synchronized, Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites) which float in zero gravity on the ISS.

The competition progressed through multiple rounds of increasing complexity during 2017 before culminating in the final championship event this week, which saw the code that was written by the students being used to move the robots inside the space station, racing against robots controlled by students around the globe, to complete a set of tasks.

The NSW schools beat out more than 200 schools from around the world to make it to the finals event.

Sydney Boys High School and Sydney Technical High School performed particularly well in the competition, making it to the semi-finals but narrowly missing out on progressing to the Championship Match.

James Ruse Agricultural High School took out first place in the Zero Robotics Virtual Championship, a separate competition in which teams who hadn’t made it to the Zero Robotics Championship finals got the chance to compete virtually with one another. As one of the top two teams in the virtual competition, the students still got to see their code used to move the SPHERES in the ISS.

The students said there were “ecstatic” to have won the virtual title.

As part of its STEM outreach activities, the University of Sydney supported more than 300 Year 9-12 students from 56 high schools across NSW in the Zero Robotics competition. This year, the competition was expanded to allow more high school students to participate (up from 20 schools last year), including, for the first time, schools in rural and regional areas such as Orange and Kew.  

Sixty current University of Sydney Engineering and IT students and recent graduates volunteered to mentor the high school students this year. Over nine months, mentors guided the teams through the process of learning the computer code, maths and physics behind the motion of the robots, while also helping students develop valuable soft skills including teamwork, effective communication and international collaboration. In the finals, teams were made up of international alliances of three schools, who had to work together across cultural, language and time-zone challenges to develop their code for the competition.

“Participating in Zero Robotics allows high school students to advance their skills in engineering, science, maths and computing – and in previous years we have seen some of these students be inspired to continue studying these subjects at university. With the Australian government recently announcing plans to establish our nation's own space agency, these competing high school students could very well be among Australia's first generation of local space engineers,” said University of Sydney Executive Director of Space Engineering Warwick Holmes.

“Zero Robotics proves that anyone, of any age, can learn to code if you’ve got the drive to learn. Zero Robotics offers students that motivation – it’s just like playing a video game, except that it’s actually happening in real life, in space,” said Zero Robotics competition coordinator Penny Player, who is studying mechatronics engineering and physics at the University of Sydney.

This is the third year Australian schools have competed in Zero Robotics:

Zero Robotics brings together passionate young coders

The Zero Robotics Championship event was also attended by a group of enthusiastic young coders from International Grammar School (IGS), an independent, secular, P-12 co-educational school in Ultimo.

Year 9 student Perri Fearnley became involved in Zero Robotics last year at IGS after a friend invited her to join the new coding club, one of 70 clubs offered at IGS at lunch times and before and after school.

“At first I was a bit reluctant,” Perri said. “I thought I wouldn’t be that good, but once I got the hang of it and found out how easy it is, it was fun.”

The students coded firstly in two dimensions, and then in 3D, using C++, programming virtual robots in a zero gravity environment.

Teams had to pre-program the robots to descend to a planet and then drill in specific places, for example. Perri said she found that a series of “if … then” steps worked best.

“By clicking on a web page, we were able to code, simulate and see how successful we had been," she said.

“I love the freedom of coding. You learn to do all these different things you can use in different scenarios. There are a million different pathways. You can use the same problem solving solution. I love it.

“It’s given me a lot more confidence. We have been using Year 12 Mathematics. My being able to problem solve has given me a huge boost of confidence. It’s very powerful.”

Fellow IGS Coding Club member Tilli Merten of Year 9 said she was glad to learn coding.

“You can apply it to lots of different things,” Tilli said. “It’s a really versatile skill, so I thought it would be a good thing to know.”

Tilli, who has been learning Chinese for two years and Italian since preschool, said coding was a bit like English, but with completely different grammar.

“You can use it for games or for telling robots what to do. I sometimes use coding for drawing on the computer.”

Coding Club coordinator Clair Loh said she was thrilled that her IGS team involved five female students, as well as a female mentor, University of Sydney aeronautical engineering PhD student Anne Bettens.

“Anne is an excellent role model for girls considering a STEM future,” Claire said.

The IGS team is also grateful for the contributions of a second University of Sydney mentor, mechatronics student John Ma.

“Zero robotics is a fabulous program for both genders. Learning to code makes our students very ‘future ready’ and the problem solving aspect provides a very real challenge," Claire said.

“The girls worked particularly well as a team. Not only did they produce some top quality code. They gained the confidence to respectfully question some of the suggestions put forward by the more assertive boys. This led to better understanding among the group and built their communications skills as a team.”  

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

Media and PR Adviser (Engineering and Information Technologies)