Kyle Dean’s Career Is Out of This World

Former VHHS student chosen for NASA internship

by Eddie Rivera

One way or another, Kyle Dean is going to Mars.

The former Tujunga resident and current Pasadena City College student is a member of a school robotics team that recently competed in NASA’s second annual Swarmathon at the Kennedy Space Center. More than 600 students from 40 colleges and 30 high schools competed in the national event.

The competition, which was streamed live online, earned for the winning team a $5,000 prize. For his part, Dean, 23, also was awarded a NASA summer internship at the University of Houston, helping to program robots similar to the Mars Rover, currently “parked” on the Red Planet.

“I’ll be working in a lab at the university instead of Pasadena,” Dean said. The Swarmathon is a “swarm robotics” programming challenge administered under a cooperative agreement between the NASA Minority University Research and Education Program and the University of New Mexico (UNM). The Swarmathon is run by Principal Investigator Melanie Moses, UNM associate professor of computer science, and by postdoctoral researchers and students in her biological computation lab.

Swarmathon teams work together to develop a computer code used by swarms of robots to autonomously find and collect the most resources in an arena without human supervision or maps. Basically, the teams try to get robots to work like humans, individually and as part of a team, at the same time.

Students developed new algorithms—which are rules encoded in computer programs— that can be used by robot swarms for other applications such as cleaning up hazardous waste or rescuing people in disaster zones. NASA Swampworks on Science partners discussed how robot swarms can also collect frozen water, minerals, and other materials needed to support NASA’s journey to Mars.

“Computer scientists have not yet figured out how to program robots to interact autonomously with unanticipated events in the real world,” said Professor Moses. Successful Swarmathon teams programmed robots to cooperate, even when noise and errors cause unexpected behavior, according to the program website.

According to Dean, who has an astronaut’s name if there ever was one, NASA built three rovers for each competing school. Each school team then programmed them.

“Last year, they had us scan little QR tags on the rovers that would take them back to their home base,” said Dean. The students are making the process simpler.

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