Kanawha County Students win International Robotics Competition

After months of work, three South Charleston High School students won an international robotics competition conducted aboard the International Space Station.

Students Alex Casto, Jacob Bumgarner, and Austin Roberts worked with Dr. Joseph Oliver, a teacher/mentor at South Charleston High School, to prepare for the Zero Robotics competition. Their team, called VADARS, worked in partnership with teams from Texas and Italy.

In Zero Robotics, students operate robots called SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites) originally designed by students at MIT. The robots — roughly the size and shape of a basketball — run on compressed gas and can be programmed to spin, revolve, hover and navigate through the air.

Each year, students competing in Zero Robotics take on a challenge that must be performed with the SPHERE. The initial rounds of the competition take place online with teams programming their robot to perform its given tasks in a virtual world.

This year students were required to program the SPHERE to move around an asteroid and take photos of it while solar flares threaten the mission.

After several rounds of online competition last fall, the finalists -- including the South Charleston students-- were invited to MIT to watch a live broadcast of an astronaut conducting the competition with real SPHERES in microgravity. The other astronauts in the space station judged the competition held Jan. 16.

After winning, the South Charleston team members were honored Jan. 28 by the West Virginia Legislature during Innovation & Entrepreneurship Day at the Capitol. The team members also toured RCBI Bridgeport to learn more about 3D Printing and advanced manufacturing technology.

The Zero Robotics High School Tournament 2014 was sponsored by NASA, the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space and the European Space Agency.