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UNM robots spark high schoolers' interest, attract NASA's attention

June 19, 2015

By Katherine Mozzone 
Published April 20, 2015

Full Article 

ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – It’s a field that’s in high demand. Now, a group of University of New Mexico students are shedding light on computer science by showing what it can do. They’ve created a number of small robots modeled after what professors call one of the Earth’s most successful species, and they’re hoping the machines will spark interest among the state’s young talent.

You can find them just about anywhere- ants. These insects are effective gatherers that know how to find food and resources. It’s why one UNM professor and her students have modeled small machines in their likeness.

“What we discovered was that they were much smarter than we thought they were. We had ideas, we went in with preconceived notions on how the ants would be searching for food. And we found that they did things differently and when we analyzed them in computer models, we realized the way that they did it was actually smarter than the way that people thought ants communicated,” said UNM Associate Professor of Computer Science Melanie Moses.

Moses says the project started with a question about ants. How are they so efficient at finding food? They studied ants and put some of their behaviors into a formula they then used to program their robots.

“The idea is to produce a swarm of robots, it’s called swarm robotics, the field, that could out from a central location, explore an area and either record information or pick up resources and bring them back,” Moses said.

These algorithms allow the robots to behave differently in different environments. The goal is to have the robots figure out what their surroundings are like and then automatically changing their behavior and communicating with other robots to see what works best.

Moses says NASA is already using the formulas. A UNM intern told them about the project. Now, they’re hoping the robots could eventually be used to search for resources on other planets.

“There would be nothing more fun than seeing our robots or at least our robot algorithms end up on the moon or mars or asteroids, wherever they’re looking for ways to explore for resources,” said Moses.

Each robot costs about $500 to make. That includes the refurbished iPod the robot uses to function.

Moses says their next goal is to have a national competition with universities from around the country that will produce teams to program the robots.

Yet, these small robots have also turned into recruiting tools. They’re hoping the iAnts will spark students’ interest and attract more high schoolers to the world of computer science, specifically the course “Computer Science for All”.

“We’ve been really excited to see that these students who maybe never thought of themselves as computer scientists, right, they didn’t see people who looked like them as computer scientists, but when they try it they realize, ‘hey, I’ve got a real skill or a real interest in doing this.” said Moses. “While it’s called computer science for all, it’s not just learning how to program, it’s learning how to think differently about all kinds of different disciplines.”

Moses says her goal is to have the course available to every New Mexico high schooler who wants to take it. So far, 600 students have taken the class.