Collaborative and Educational Crowdsourcing of Spaceflight Software using SPHERES Zero Robotics

Collaborative and Educational Crowdsourcing of Spaceflight Software using SPHERES Zero Robotics

Sreeja Nag, Jeffrey A. Hoffman, Olivier L. de Weck
DOI: 10.4018/ijstmi.2012070101
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Crowdsourcing is being researched as a problem-solving technique by issuing open calls for solutions to large crowds of people with the incentive of prizes. This paper tackles the dual objectives of building cluster flight software and educating students using collaborative competition, both in virtual simulation environments and on real hardware in space. The concept is demonstrated using the SPHERES Zero Robotics Program, a robotics programming competition where the robots are nano-satellites called SPHERES onboard the International Space Station (ISS), traditionally used as a Guidance, Navigation and Control testbed in microgravity. Zero Robotics allows students to program SPHERES to play a game through a web-based interface and the most robust projects are evaluated on the ISS hardware, supervised by astronauts. The apparatus to investigate the influence of collaboration was developed by (1) building new web infrastructure where intensive inter-participant collaboration is possible, (2) designing a game that incentivizes collaboration with opponents, to solve a relevant formation flight problem and (3) structuring a tournament such that inter-team collaboration is mandated. The web infrastructure was also built using collaborative competitions, to demonstrate feasibility of building space software end-to-end by crowdsourcing.
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1. Introduction

Crowdsourcing, in the context of this paper, is defined as the methodology by which a well-defined problem is attempted to be solved by announcing it as an open call for solutions to crowds of people with the incentive that the best solutions will be awarded prizes (Howe, 2006). There is no restriction on the methods that the crowds can use to solve the problem, but there may be a time limit given to come up with a solution and constraints on the ways in which the proposed solutions are submitted. Historical applications include John Harrison’s longitude determination method and Leblanc’s production of soda ash from salt. Recent applications include the Climate Co-Lab to address climate change (Laubacher, Olson, & Malone, 2011), iGEM to engineer biological organisms (Goodman, 2008), Clickworkers (Ishikawa, Gulick, 2012), NASA Tournament Labs – NTL (Boudreau, Lakhani, 2010) and the Mars Crowdsourcing Experiment to annotate semantically rich features of Mars (van ‘t Woud, 2011).

CS-STEM is an acronym for Computer Science (CS), Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. CS-STEM Education refers to efforts invested in bringing students and young professionals, the next generation workforce, up to speed in the fields of CS-STEM and therefore be prepared to address the grand challenges of the 21st century (Atkinson & Mayo, 2010; Trilling, 2010; Resnick, 1998). Two of six goals released as part of NASA’s 2011 Strategic Plan have direct relevance to STEM and education (“NASA Strategic Plan 2011,” 2012) and earlier educational programs have tried to address them (Allner, et al, 2010).

Collaborative gaming and associated competition refers to the recent gaming phenomenon called ‘massively multiplayer online role-playing games’ (MMORPGs) (Yee, n.d.). Examples of gaming applications include Guitar Hero, Nintendo’s Wii and Alternate Reality Games (ARGs) (Kim, Allen, & Lee, 2008). Literature has shown gaming to have tremendous positive effect as an educational tool: blissful productivity, urgent optimism, working in a collaborative environment and toward something agreed upon as an ‘epic win’ (McGonigal, 2011).

Satellite formation flight is the concept that multiple satellites (e.g. satellite constellations) can work together in a group to accomplish the objective of or do better than one larger, monolithic satellite (Folta, Newman, & Gardner, 1996). A satellite cluster is a type of constellation where all the modules need to fly within a specific range of each other (communication range, sensing range, data transfer range, etc.) in orbit in order to be functional. This requires solutions to multi-body problems in Earth orbit, precise determination of position, orientation and time, advanced control algorithms, trajectory planning, collision avoidance (Nag & Summerer, 2013) and many other issues. Examples of cluster flight are the DARPA F6 (O’Neill, Yue, Nag, Grogan, & De Weck, 2010), TechSAT-21 and PROBA-3.

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