Project Lead Kurt Leucht has spent recent months testing the software of NASA's "Swarmie" robots. Using an evolving genetic algorithm, the robots operate as connected, ant-like swarms. The technology could prove to be valuable as humans explore harsh, remote, or inaccessible locations where teleoperation and resource gathering is required.

Kurt Leucht, Command & Control Software Developer, Kennedy Space Center, Florida
NASA Tech Briefs: What is a Swarmie robot?

Kurt Leucht: The Swarmie is a 1 x 1′ mobile robot, and it is made out of parts that you can buy at your local hobby store. It has four wheels, the main chassis, motors attached to the walls, and sensors. The behavior of the robot swarm mimics the foraging strategy of ants to find and collect resources in an unknown environment, and return those resources to a central site. The swarm has no prior knowledge of the environment and evolves a behavioral parameter set using a genetic algorithm.

NTB: What makes the ant approach more efficient than searching an entire area?

Leucht: With the ant searching technique, if a robot finds some resources, it will leave a digital or virtual “pheromone” trail back to the nest. When other robots leave the nest, they can follow that pheromone trail and help with the collection of that food.

NTB: What is unique about the software?

Leucht: This is software that has been developed by the team at the University of New Mexico Biological Computational Lab. The software makes these robots start at the nest, go out in different directions, and do their searching in random locations. The genetic algorithm, however, evolves the behavior of the software, over hundreds of generations, based on the environment that these robots are going to be in. If you put the robots in an environment that has a lot of obstacles, the robots are going to behave differently than if they were in an environment that didn’t have any obstacles. The genetic algorithm has also been able to maintain a high level of fitness while incorporating autonomous recharging of the robots.

NTB: What are the possibilities for Swarmie technology?

Leucht: This project is an in situ resource utilization (ISRU)-focused project, which means living off the land as much as we can. Knowing that there is water ice at the poles of Mars, or water ice down in craters of the Moon that never see sunlight, for example, you could launch a swarm of small resource collectors, or “prospectors” if you will, to that area. You could let them fan out and start looking for and collecting that water ice. They could then bring it back to a central location, where you might have a factory that turns that water ice into separated oxygen and hydrogen, for example, which could be used as fuel. We’ve thought of several Earth-based applications. You could send a swarm of small robots into an earthquake-ravaged area, for example, to look for survivors. There are other ideas, such as looking for landmines or detecting problems on large, widely distributed systems like power lines or pipelines.

NTB: What excites you about working with the Swarmie technology?

Leucht: I think it’s great to talk to other people about it, whether it’s a manager that you’re trying to explain the project to, or a student. It’s tangible. It’s a robot. They can see it and feel it; they can turn the wheels. I’ve had a lot of requests to do some outreach and get kids excited about the STEM field. That’s been the most exciting part for me.

To download this interview as a podcast, click here.

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the June, 2015 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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