NASA, Carnegie Mellon Inspire Future ROBOTICS Engineers

BY Byron Spice - Wed, 2003-07-16 12:00  Printer-friendly version

As NASA's Mars Exploration Rovers journey toward the red planet, 36 highschool students are honing their engineering and programming skills duringan intensive, seven-week robotics course called 'RoboCamp-West.'

Sponsored by NASA Ames Research Center, Moffett Field Calif., and CarnegieMellon University, Pittsburgh, the summer robotics course is being held atthe university's west coast campus at NASA Research Park. During thecourse, NASA engineers and Carnegie Mellon faculty are working with thestudents to build and program sophisticated, three-wheeled, 'TrikeBot'robots that will be fitted with sensors, including a video camera andinfrared range finder.

"One of the ideas behind a summer with Carnegie Mellon, is to engagestudents in understanding both the science and engineering challenges ofspace exploration," said Daniel Clancy, acting director of NASA Ames'Information Sciences and Technology Directorate. "The premise is that spaceis cool, robots are cool and the combination of both is really cool. Webelieve that robotics and space exploration is a way to motivate, challengeand encourage students."

Each week, students are presented with a problem to solve. With guidancefrom Carnegie Mellon instructors and student mentors, the students developindividual solutions and program their robots. The students are tested eachWednesday and are free to continue refining their programming for 'braggingrights' in a contest at the end of the week.

"The students span the spectrum of experience with programming androbotics, but all are very enthusiastic, easily motivated and love whatthey are doing," said Mel Siegel, Carnegie Mellon senior research scientistand RoboCamp-West instructor. "They keep us going. We are exhausted butvery happy at the end of the day."

Each student is given a custom kit of parts to build a robot, whichincludes a video camera, infrared range finder, motors and custom-designedelectrical components integrated into a precision laser-cut rover frame.The robots are controlled by an onboard personal digital assistant (PDA)that is wirelessly linked to a laptop computer. Using JAVA software, thestudents can pre-program the robot, control it manually or use acombination of both.

"The robots are fairly sophisticated and can perform relatively complexautonomous tasks," said Khalid Al-Ali, senior Carnegie Mellon fellow andRoboCamp-West instructor. "As a matter of fact, a robot from last year'scourse was used by NASA Ames researchers to test parts of the programmingrequired for NASA's robotic missions to Mars."

The NASA Ames Equal Opportunity Programs Office provided scholarships for20 minority students in the course. The scholarships supply each studentwith a laptop computer, a PDA and a two-week training course in JAVA taughtat San Jose State University, San Jose, Calif.

"Latino and other minority students are severely under-represented in math,science and technology careers. To address this problem, NASA Ames workedwith San Jose State University's MESA Engineering Program to recruit 20mostly Latino students for the Carnegie Mellon RoboCamp," said AdrianaCardenas, director of the Equal Opportunity Programs Office at NASA Ames."We hope this experience will inspire these students to pursue technicalcareers and thus be able to partake in the opportunities that NASA offers."

"The scholarships opened the eyes of many of the students to the world ofprogramming and robotics," said Horacio Alfaro, director of San JoseState's MESA Engineering Program. "By going through this experience, thesestudents can now consider pursuing a path they may not have consideredprior to their participation, opening doors that may have been closed inthe past."

At the end of camp, the students will take their 'TrikeBots' home forfurther exploration. Each robot is designed with extra ports so studentscan easily add additional sensors for more advanced applications. Studentscan receive additional help over the Internet. The scholarship recipientsalso will take their PDAs and laptops home.

"NASA is investing in its future by working with prestigious universitieslike Carnegie Mellon University to inspire and teach the next generation ofresearchers and scientists," said Maylene Duenas, associate director forstrategic development in the Information Sciences and Technologydirectorate at NASA Ames. "NASA is hoping that these students will becomefuture NASA researchers and engineers working on exploration projects usingcomputational science and robotics."

For more information about RoboCamp and Carnegie Mellon's west coastcampus, visit:http://west.cmu.edu/specialPrograms/robocamp/

For more information about the NASA Ames Information Sciences andTechnology Division, visit:http://ic.arc.nasa.gov/

For more information about the NASA Ames Equal Opportunity Programs Office,visit:http://eo.arc.nasa.gov/

For more information about San Jose State University's MESA EngineeringProgram, visit:http://www.engr.sjsu.edu/~mep/

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Byron Spice | 412-268-9068 | bspice [atsymbol] cs.cmu.edu