Robotics students headed to inaugural NASA Swarmathon competition: San Jacinto College chosen as one of 12 teams nationally

04.13.2016 | By Andrea Vasquez

Several robotics students will represent San Jacinto College as they team with the University of Houston-Clear Lake (UHCL) to compete in NASA’s inaugural Swarmathon robotics competition at NASA Kennedy Space Center in Florida April 18 – 22.

Twelve teams representing 14 minority serving universities and community colleges nationwide were selected to compete in the physical Swarmathon competition, and 23 additional teams will compete in the virtual competition. San Jacinto College, in partnership with UHCL, as well as the University of Houston main campus, are the only two participating teams from Texas.

The NASA Swarmathon is a cooperative robotics challenge where teams will be challenged to develop search algorithms for robotic swarms. “Swarmies” are small robotic vehicles designed based on the behaviors of ants foraging for food. Behaviors such as movement, returning to food locations, and communication were studied and translated into adaptive search algorithms. These search algorithms can be applied to space exploration missions which will require the identification and retrieval of resources on the Moon, Mars, or other extra planetary surfaces. Each competition Swarmie is equipped with sensors, a webcam, GPS system, and Wi-Fi antenna. They operate autonomously and can be programmed to communicate and interact as a collective swarm.

Twenty-year-old San Jacinto College student Amalia Peña was natural fit for this robotics challenge. As part of the imaging team, Peña described making the final touches to their portion of the Swarmie’s programming. “Even though I’m a beginner in C++ language, I’m learning a lot by working on this competition,” said Peña. “Right now we’re trying to tweak the Swarmie’s programming more to better read a line in virtual reality, which basically means having the robot retrieve something but staying within the boundaries we assign to it.”

In addition to being the most effective way to scour large territories for resources, robotic swarms are more robust, flexible, and scalable than larger, singular robots operating alone. Combining new algorithms, hardware and sensors, and traditional computational techniques for search, learning, and data accumulation will greatly improve Swarm robotics technology as it develops.

That’s where 25-year-old San Jacinto College robotics student Travis Ketchum comes in. While also working with Peña and the imaging team, Ketchum’s role is primarily on the software and hardware team that collaborates with UHCL. “We’re all going through the code piece by piece trying to optimize the algorithm software-wise in order to increase its efficiency with resource collection,” said Ketchum. “I’m benefitting a lot from the experience of the faculty mentors and the software teams at San Jacinto College and UHCL. It’s been a really great experience to learn more about robotics and how software teams work. I’m looking forward to seeing how other teams implemented things and what direction they took with the software.”

Having students represent the College in this inaugural NASA robotics competition is a testament to the program itself. “I think it’s really cool that we were selected for the most difficult NASA competition,” said San Jacinto College mathematics and engineering professor, and Swarmathon faculty mentor, Nate Wiggins. “It really shows that we have a very advanced partnership with UHCL that allows our students to go from basic freshman level all the way up through graduate school. It’s a very precise, clear pathway, and we’ve seen a lot of our students get internships with NASA, Boeing, and other places nearby. Our students are also getting great REUs (research experiences for undergraduates) by participating in the NASA Swarmathon, and it really speaks well for our engineering program.”

After the competition, Wiggins’ students will shift roles from being students to teachers. “Our students do great recruiting for the robotics program by doing outreach with local middle and high schools, showing them the opportunities that are available at San Jacinto College,” he said. “A lot of high school students are involved in Lego Leagues and the First Tech Challenge, so we want to show them that those same skills can be adapted and taken up through industry. I think robotics and the video games that we all enjoy turn into medical, financial, defense, and many other areas. Students don’t realize that learning a little bit of robotics or gaming can turn into a huge high-paying career later.”

For more information on the San Jacinto College engineering program, visit


About San Jacinto College

Surrounded by monuments of history, industries and maritime enterprises of today, and the space age of tomorrow, San Jacinto College has been serving the citizens of East Harris County, Texas, for more than 50 years. As an Achieving the Dream Leader College, San Jacinto College is committed to the goals and aspirations of a diverse population of approximately 30,000 credit students. The College offers 186 degrees and certificates, with 46 technical programs and a university transfer division. Students benefit from a support system that maps out a pathway for success, and job training programs that are renowned for meeting the needs of growing industries in the region. San Jacinto College graduates contribute nearly $690 million each year to the Texas workforce.

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