In April, a robotics team from the Southwestern Indian Polytechnic Institute (SIPI), an Albuquerque, New Mexico-based tribal college, took grand prize ($5,000) in NASA’s 2017 Swarmathon Challenge held at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. SIPI’s students competed against 19 other higher education institutions, scoring nearly twice as many points as the runner-up. In 2016, SIPI’s team took third place.
The Swarmathon Challenge is organized each year to promote the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) fields and applied robotics. The space agency plans to use the technology that the schools develop. Small, four-wheeled rovers called “swarmies” will roam the Martian surface, autonomously collecting ice deposits, minerals and elements that can be refined into building materials or fuel. A NASA press release says that the robots could also be used to clean up hazardous waste or rescue people in disaster zones. The insect-like swarmies were designed and built through collaboration between Kennedy Space Center’s Swamp Works laboratory and the University of New Mexico.
SIPI’s students spent months in three teams of four people devising and refining algorithms and code to guide the rovers. The initiative was headed by faculty lead of the engineering program, Nader Vadie, Ph.D. The students included Schulte Cooke (Navajo), Emery Sutherland (Navajo), Christian Martinez (Laguna), Ty Shurley (Navajo), Glen Allen (Navajo), Brian Bahe (Laguna), Mathew Gachupín (Jémez), Geoff Gustina (Navajo), Simonie Salazar (Isleta), Joshua Sparvier (Assiniboine), Collin Whitehair (Navajo) and Andrew Wright (Navajo).
At a celebration ceremony honoring the SIPI team, UNM’s Distinguished and Regents Professor Ted Jojola (Isleta Pueblo) drew comparisons between the students’ success and the achievements of indigenous peoples from past millennia. “Our ancestors were great innovators,” he said. “They built pyramids and massive irrigation systems that sustained populations of 150,000 people. We need to bring back that sense of innovation.”