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3/7/2012
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DARPA Seeks Satellite Programs That Stick

Developer challenge will reward novel ways to program small space station satellites to autonomously approach and capture objects using Velcro.

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The Department of Defense's (DoD's) research arm is co-sponsoring a new challenge for developers to create code to program active satellites to move toward and capture objects aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's (DARPA's) InSPIRE (International Space Station SPHERES Integrated Research Experiments) program, TopCoder, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are sponsoring the Zero Robotics Autonomous Space Capture Challenge, a developer tournament to program algorithms that will help small satellites flying on the ISS autonomously perform object capture, according to DARPA.

SPHERES stands for Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient Experimental Satellites, which are free-flying robots about the size of basketballs that are meant to serve as remote-controlled astronaut assistants aboard the ISS.

[ Common, inexpensive technologies are being used by foreign adversaries to build 'military grade' systems. See DARPA: Consumer Tech Can Aid Electronic Warfare. ]

Powered by CO2 cartridges and smartphone-powered headsets, SPHERES can currently perform tasks such as surveys and inspections of the interior of the ISS by capturing mobile camera images and video. Eventually, however, NASA wants them to be able to do more, such as replace humans for repair work or configure telescopes.

That's where the challenge comes in. DARPA is hoping Earth-bound programmers can create algorithms that will allow the satellites to achieve another level of autonomous movement.

Specifically, the challenge is to create code to allow the SPHERES to autonomously approach tumbling, passive objects on the ISS and capture them using Velcro, according to DARPA.

During the tournament--which starts March 28 and will run for four, week-long rounds--developers will collaborate via the Zero Robotics website. ZeroRobotics is co-sponsored by NASA and run by MIT's Space Systems Laboratory.

At the end of each week, the Zero Robotics website will publish the best submission for public reference and use in the next round.

The four best submissions--i.e., each week's winners--also will be included in a demo aboard the ISS in late May, and winning developers will be invited to watch the live test at MIT or via a webcast feed.

The sponsors are particularly targeting middle- and high-school students to participate in the challenge as part of federal science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education efforts, according to TopCoder.

In addition to STEM efforts, the challenge also is part of a federal trend to seek technology innovation from the public for government use through the use of challenges. The feds even created the Challenge.gov website to aggregate agencies' challenges and help make them easier to find and participate in.

As federal agencies embrace devices and apps to meet employee demand, the White House seeks one comprehensive mobile strategy. Also in the new Going Mobile issue of InformationWeek Government: Find out how the National Security Agency is developing technologies to make commercial devices suitable for intelligence work. (Free registration required.)

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