Two teams from Northern New Mexico are working on cutting-edge robotics research projects with an assist from NASA.
Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Matt Williams is leading a team of students in an international robotics team.
The robotics program is sponsored by NASA and RoboRave, a New Mexico-based robotics education and competition program.
Williams said his team, Skonkworks Robotics, consists of Carla Pacheco, a homeschooled high-school student in Española, one student in Santa Fe, and one from the Bay Area of California. He said there is also another team of Northern New Mexico College students coached by engineering professor Steve Cox.
Other teams in the Students and Teachers Assisting Real Research (STARR) program are in Albuquerque, southern New Mexico, Columbia and Japan, Williams said. Other teams were connected through RoboRave through Russ Fisher-Ives.
The teams work with George Gorospe, a NASA research engineer at Ames Research Center in California and a New Mexico native and a Santa Fe Indian School graduate.
Gorospe develops artificial intelligence systems for spacecraft and robotics, including launch stages for rockets.
Williams said right now is the second season of the project, and that he and Cox were invited to join for this year. Gorospe said there were 10 or 11 schools involved starting in August.
The goal is by the end of the season, early next year, to program a robot to be able to recognize objects. The teams will have an obstacle course where the robot will have to avoid certain objects and seek out others.
“This is like 90 percent of what self-driving cars do,” Gorospe said.
Gorospe said there won’t be any sort of competition, because there can’t be any standard playing field to judge contestants, especially during the pandemic. Instead, each student contributes to a shared data pool.
He said the project is clearing up misconceptions about artificial intelligence, such as the idea that robots are dangerous.
Williams has been involved in a summer physics camp for young women for years, teaching Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) to high-school students. He said that was where he found students for the robotics program.
Williams said his team is working together virtually; he sent robots to all three students and helped them get built - a SparkFun JetBot AI.
He said he’s been working for years on projects with students, including a recent one with students at Española Middle School, and said he’s been educating children for 15 years.
The students have learned how to code the robot using Python, a coding language, and Williams said the tools they use are the same he uses in his work at the lab.
Right now, the groups are working on uploading pictures of objects to teach their robot to identify it. Williams’ group is working on a baseball cap, which involves taking lots of different pictures from different angles and various backgrounds and lighting.
Gorospe said another group is uploading pictures of feet to train the robot, which is useful so that the robot doesn’t run over anyone’s foot.
Alegra Vierra, a student at Monte del Sol Charter School in Santa Fe and another member of Williams’ team, said she had not done any programming before.
She said she was excited to be learning things that are not usually taught in school, especially in fields that are harder to access for young women.
Williams said they might also train the robot to identify masks, and Gorospe had the idea that this kind of technology could easily be used to create a door that only unlocks when someone is wearing a mask when they try to enter.
“That’s why I’m really excited about it,” Williams said. “Because, the things that they are learning now, if they choose to go into engineering or technology, these are things that they will have for the rest of their life. And that’s very useful stuff.”