We noticed you're browsing in private or incognito mode.

To continue reading this article, please exit incognito mode or log in.

Not a subscriber? Subscribe now for unlimited access to online articles.

Out-of-This-World Robots

How the Zero Robotics competition let me taste the thrill of space

When I was a kid, everything I owned had something to do with space. I had a little couch covered in stars and planets and a room filled with all sorts of space-related books and knickknacks. My ceiling was plastered with those glow-in-the-dark stick-on stars that made your room feel a little more extraterrestrial. I was amazed, and more than a little terrified, by the immensity of space, and I wished for nothing more than to have something to do with something off this planet, because to me, space’s unparalleled cool factor made it so much more important than anything on Earth.

robotic competition
Students watch robots running their code compete through a live link to the space station at the 2013 Zero Robotics competition.

That’s what made MIT’s Zero Robotics competition so exciting for me. To write code for satellites in space—it was something I had only dreamed of doing until I heard about the competition from a friend at the end of my junior year at New York’s Stuyvesant High School. It was the best opportunity a high-school kid passionate about space and programming could have.

Dan Cziczo
This story is part of the March/April 2013 Issue of the MIT News magazine
See the rest of the issue
Vinay Mayar
Vinay Mayar

Our task in the 2011 competition was to write a program to maneuver a satellite to one of two asteroids, where it would mine ore. Players had to collaborate to make the mining process more efficient and then race to a finish location with as much ore as possible. The game was simulated, but astronauts would run the finalists’ code on soccer-ball-size satellites onboard the International Space Station. Though simple, it gave rise to a number of interesting challenges. This was the first time I had really worked on an engineering problem of such scope—one where I had to come up with creative methods, find efficient implementations, and perform tons of calculations.

My team worked for months on communication protocols, fuel-efficient maneuvering, and AI problems like deciding whether or not the other player was collaborating. The challenges were intense but fun, continually incorporating new elements. It became more than just a game; it was a team project that I was heavily invested in. And I could see my efforts gradually evolving into a successful program.

Then, in January 2012, I got to go to MIT for the final showdown. As I sat in room 10-250 and watched the live stream of our completed program being run on high-tech satellites zooming around inside the space station, hundreds of miles above Earth, I felt a real sense of accomplishment. It was more rewarding than I could have imagined—and the astronauts at MIT that day made sure of that. They were proud of what we had done and of what we would accomplish. We became part of an exclusive community of people who love space enough to make an impact beyond Earth.

For me the fun didn’t end there. In September, I became a freshman at MIT and got to participate in a UROP project working on the 2012 game. I was on the other side, choosing challenges and actually writing some of the behind-the-scenes code! I got to experiment with the satellites on the ground and write tests for the satellites in space. The problems I worked on were the same ones the competitors were solving, but this was even more thrilling, and more challenging. This time around I watched the finals from the control room, listening to the back-and-forth communication from NASA and watching the competing teams react as they saw their programs win and lose. I was as excited as they were, and I felt the same sense of accomplishment I had the year before. Not only had I contributed to their excitement, but my code was running on those satellites.

I dreamed about space, competed in space, wrote tests for space. With every line of code, the Zero Robotics competition has kindled my passion for space—and for computer science and engineering.

Vinay Mayar is a freshman at MIT studying mathematics and computer science. He works on design, implementation, and testing for the Zero Robotics competition as a UROP student in MIT’s Space Systems Lab.

AI is here. Will you lead or follow? Countdown to EmTech Digital 2019 has begun.

Register now
Next in MIT News
Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe to Print + All Access Digital.
  • Print + All Access Digital {! insider.prices.print_digital !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    The best of MIT Technology Review in print and online, plus unlimited access to our online archive, an ad-free web experience, discounts to MIT Technology Review events, and The Download delivered to your email in-box each weekday.

    See details+

    12-month subscription

    Unlimited access to all our daily online news and feature stories

    6 bi-monthly issues of print + digital magazine

    10% discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Access to entire PDF magazine archive dating back to 1899

    Ad-free website experience

    The Download: newsletter delivered daily

You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for unlimited online access. This is your last free article this month. for unlimited online access. You've read all your free articles this month. for unlimited online access. You've read of three free articles this month. for more, or for unlimited online access. for two more free articles, or for unlimited online access.

MIT News = for alumni only.

Are you an MIT alum?
Sign in now to read all MIT alumni news and class notes— or to manage your magazine subscription.

Sign in and read on