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SCHS students again win robot competition on space station

By Ryan Quinn, Education Reporter

Alex Casto Alex Sanchez Shannon Joins

South Charleston High School students Alex Casto (left), Alex Sanchez and Shannon Joins were among the students named winners in the “Zero Robotics” competition, held aboard the International Space Station.


Seeing the robot he programmed compete live in no gravity against robots from other states and countries onboard the International Space Station seems exciting, but the competition began at 4:30 a.m., and Alex Casto got up to watch the online livestream 2 hours earlier


“I hate to admit this, but I kind of fell asleep halfway through,” said Casto, 17. I was extremely tired.”


But during his slumber, the robot that he and fellow South Charleston High School students Shannon Joins and Alex Sanchez programmed — alongside students at a Californian high school and an Italian high school who were in their “alliance” — worked its way toward victory.


Joseph Oliver, a computer science teacher at South Charleston High, said his school’s alliance was named a co-winner of Monday’s Zero Robotics competition, alongside another group comprised of one Californian and two Italian schools. He said over 400 teams worldwide took part in the competition, which started around October, and virtual programming matches among them eliminated schools leading up to the space showdown with real robots. He said some issues onboard the station, including a carbon dioxide tank freezing up, limited the competition’s time to winnow it to just one winner.


“It’s NASA, they’re pretty tight on scheduling,” Oliver said.


Regardless, he said the alliance South Charleston was part of scored more points than any other alliance.


“The kids that we have, they’re phenomenal programmers,” he said. “... We programmed better than any other team in the world.”


Competitors gathered at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to view the livestream from space, but the South Charleston students weren’t able to attend due to the weather. According to its website, Zero Robotics is sponsored by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and is led by MIT, TopCoder, and Aurora Flight Sciences, which creates advanced unmanned systems and aerospace vehicles.


Last year, South Charleston High also won the competition. That was the first year it entered, after Oliver discovered it online.


Casto, who said he caught the end of this year’s bout and was awakened by a call from his mother about it, is the only team member who also was on last year’s team. Last year, he was joined by Jacob Bumgarner and Austin Roberts. Oliver said other students worked on the competition this year, but Casto, Joins and Sanchez were the pupils who were there in the beginning and stuck with it.


Oliver said the robots are propelled by carbon dioxide. They’re called SPHERES — Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites — according to the Zero Robotics website, and they’re roughly soccer-ball shaped objects. He said the students had to virtually program them to move on a two-dimensional plane, and then to move in three dimensions. As the competition progressed, they were asked to also use fewer lines of computer code and decrease the overall data size of their code.


Casto said the competitions involved programming one’s robot to collect virtual items and take pictures of opposing teams’ robots, all while trying to not be photographed themselves. Robots could hide from cameras in the dark zone, but could only regain energy in the light. He said different groups came up with different strategies, so students had to program their robots, which weren’t manually controlled by humans but had sensors, to react to a range of actions by their opponents.


“We had to program our code to be able to deal with anything, which is really tricky,” he said. He said they couldn’t change programs when they changed opponents.


Casto said his team was ranked about 20th out of the 400 schools before it was picked by the higher ranked Italian team to join the alliance. Oliver said the students from Europe, Appalachia and the West Coast communicated mostly via email, but also through live web chatting.


 Casto said he got into coding around age 11 or 12 with an online game called Roblox, which he found “almost addictive.” He joined Oliver’s class to learn a different coding language, C++, and was surprised to win his first Zero Robotics competition. He said he doesn’t know yet what his career or college path will be.


“Before this I was looking into law, but I don’t know,” he said. “This kind of opens up a lot of doors for me.”


Reach Ryan Quinn at ryan.quinn@ wvgazettemail.com, facebook.com/ryanedwinquinn, 304-348-1254 or follow @RyanEQuinn on Twitter. - See more at: http://www.wvgazettemail.com/news/20160125/schs-students-again-win-robot-competition-on-space-station#sthash.Sp84xcns.dpuf


Zero Robotics is a robotics programming competition where the robots are SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites) inside the International Space Station. The competition starts online, on this website, where teams program the SPHERES to solve an annual challenge. After several phases of virtual competition in a simulation environment that mimics the real SPHERES, finalists are selected to compete in a live championship aboard the ISS. An astronaut will conduct the championship competition in microgravity with a live broadcast!

There are two types of Zero Robotics tournaments:

  • High School Tournament: Geared towards students in grades 9-12, the tournament takes place from September to December each year. This is an international event open to all teams from the US and member states of the European Space Agency.

  • Middle School Summer Program: This is a 5-week program in which younger students learn to program through a graphical interface. The program will take place at selected locations in the US. The first multi-state program took place in CA, FL, GA, ID, and MA in 2013 and is expected to expand to other states (TBD) in 2014.

All tournaments are free of charge. All you need to do to get started is (1) find a team of 5-20 students and a mentor, (2) create an account and (3) register your team for a tournament. The list of currently active tournaments is here.

Tournament Objectives

The participants compete to win a technically challenging game by programming their strategies into the SPHERES satellites. The game is motivated by a current problem of interest to DARPA, NASA and MIT.  Student software controls satellite speed, rotation, direction of travel, etc.  Depending on the game premise, the students must program their satellites to complete game objectives (navigate obstacles, pick up virtual objects, etc.) while conserving resources (fuel, charge, etc.) and staying within specified time and code-size limits.  The programs are "autonomous" - that is, the students cannot control the satellites during the test itself. 



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Zero Robotics is a robotics programming competition where the robots are SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites) inside the International Space Station. Final Competition will be held once again on the International Space Station and judged by NASA Astronauts. (This was supposed to be January 18, 2016 but is not going to be postponed, date has yet to be determined).


As you may know, South Charleston High School Won last year’s Zero Robotics competition, beating over 380 teams worldwide. The 2015-16 Zero Robotics competition semifinal round results are posted and VADARS, the South Charleston High School team, is "1st" going into the final competition. Last year,  when South Charleston High School won the  Zero Robotics competition, they beat out over 380 teams worldwide. The 2015-16 Zero Robotics competition semifinal round results have been posted and VADARS, the South Charleston High School team, is "1st" going into the final competition! As the defending champions, we were unable to attend MIT last year and I would like to send 3 students (Alex Casto, Alex Sanchez, and Shannon Joins) to MIT, Cambridge Massachusetts for the final competition.


We would need travel, meals, and hotel accommodation for 3 nights. Estimates for the trip to send 3 students and chaperones would be close to $2000.00 We would like to celebrate South Charleston high school’s accomplishments by sending a team of students to MIT to represent the excellence that West Virginia has to offer. With your help we can make it happen.


"Zero Robotics" tournaments open the world-class research facilities on the International Space Station (ISS) to high school students. Students write programs at their high schools that may control a satellite in space! The goal is to build critical engineering skills for students, such as problem solving, design thought process, operations training, and team work.


Zero Robotics was created in 2009 by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory (SSL) and astronaut Greg Chamitoff with the goal of opening research on the International Space Station to large groups of secondary school students. Zero Robotics draws significant inspiration from FIRST robotics (hence the name) and shares common goals including building lifelong skills in science, technology, engineering, and math. Zero Robotics is envisioned as a complementary competition to FIRST, since FIRST robotics concentrates on the building of hardware and human control techniques, while Zero Robotics concentrates on the development of autonomous software.

In fall 2009, the SSL conducted a pilot program of the Zero Robotics competition with two schools from northern Idaho. The competition was motivated by the idea of a satellite assistant robot. The first robotics competition aboard the ISS took place on December 9th, 2009.

Zero Robotics was a component of NASA's Summer of Innovation, a nationwide program targeted at encouraging STEM education for middle school students. During this competition, 10 teams and over 150 students from schools in the Boston area worked for five weeks to program the SPHERES to compete in an obstacle course race. After diligently working, the students sent their programs to the ISS and watched the live competition on August 19th, 2010.

In fall 2010, Zero Robotics conducted a nationwide pilot tournament for high school students named the Zero Robotics SPHERES Challenge 2010: HelioSPHERES. Over 200 students from 19 US states participated as part of 24 teams. The objective of the game was to complete the assembly of a solar power station by maneuver a satellite to dock with a floating solar panel then bring it back to the station to finish the mission, before the opponent does.

Zero Robotics now runs two annual competitions, one for middle school in the summer and one for high school in the fall. There is a new game with new challenges every year.

The SPHERES Zero Robotics program is led by MIT, TopCoder, and Aurora Flight Sciences under the sponsorship of DARPA and NASA.