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Danielle Wood named as principal investigator (PI) for Zero Robotics

Danielle Wood

Danielle Wood, director of the Space Enabled research group and assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab and in the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, has been named as the new principal investigator (PI) for the Zero Robotics program at MIT.

Founded over a decade ago by MIT’s Alvar Saenz-Otero, Jacob Katz and David Miller, Zero Robotics is an educational program that hosts tournaments to teach middle and high school students to write code and program with robots on the International Space Station (ISS). The Zero Robotics program originally allowed students to use robotics called SPHERES (Synchronized Position Hold Engage and Reorient Experimental Satellites); this system was developed by the MIT Space Systems Laboratory, in conjunction with NASA, DARPA, and Aurora Flight Sciences, to provide a safe and reusable zero gravity platform to test sensor, control, and autonomy technologies for use in satellites.

Danielle Wood served as an undergraduate and graduate researcher with the SPHERES project from 2003 to 2006, where she studied methods to add tethers connecting the small robots.

In the program’s first decade, Zero Robotics tournaments helped almost 20,000 students from 30 US states and 18 countries learn to code on the SPHERES platform, providing opportunities to contribute to real ISS missions and work with mentors to design, implement, and operate robots. This has enabled Zero Robotics to act as a bridge between students and leaders in the space industry — scientists, engineers, and other professionals at the forefront of science and engineering — and inspire students to become leaders and mentors themselves.

While the SPHERES program retired from the ISS in 2019, Dr. Wood is working with the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space to access NASA’s new Astrobee robotic system. She has also won two grants from the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space to work with its technology development and educational programs. Dr. Wood has also collaborated with the Navajo Technical University in New Mexico and California State University, Long Beach to secure a $1.18 million grant from NASA. This grant was awarded for a three-year collaboration to increase participation of Native and Hispanic students in STEM education, including Zero Robotics.

With this new funding, the Zero Robotics program will fully restart under Dr. Wood’s leadership in 2022. In preparation, MIT and the Aerospace Corporation collaborated to host a session of the Zero Robotics program this past summer.

We’re also excited to announce that the Media Lab will host the Boston premiere of Zero Gravity, as part of the 2021 Boston Film Festival. A documentary by filmmaker Thomas Verrette, the film follows a cohort of students from Campbell Middle School, near San Jose, California, as they compete in the 2017 Zero Robotics tournament.

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The MIT Media Lab is one of the world’s leading research and academic organizations, where designers, engineers, artists, and scientists strive to create technologies and experiences that enable people to understand and transform their lives, communities, and environments.

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