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NASA selects Fayetteville State team proposal for first-ever MSI space accelerator program

From left to right: FSU students Khali Crawford, Grace Vincent and Jonathan Soltren will intern at the Naval Research Lab in Washington D.C. this summer.
Fayetteville State University/NASA
From left to right: FSU students Khali Crawford, Grace Vincent and Jonathan Soltren will intern at the Naval Research Lab in Washington D.C. this summer.

Fayetteville State University is one of three awardees selected for NASA’s inaugural Minority Serving Institution (MSI) Space Accelerator Challenge – a first-of-its-kind competition to advance the goals of NASA and meet the agency’s needs in the areas of machine learning, artificial intelligence, and development of autonomous systems. The competitive application process encouraged applicants to think like startup businesses, offering $50,000 in funding and extensive training.

FSU’s winning team, led by Sambit Bhattacharya, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science and director of FSU’s Intelligent Systems Laboratory, pitched the proposal, “Autonomous Systems with On-Demand Inference from Perception Pipelines,” to experts and venture capitalists. The scientific idea of the proposal is to increase the speed with which artificial intelligence software works on a combination of hardware of different levels of computing power ranging from servers to edge devices, without sacrificing accuracy. It is initially designed to maximize scientific data from various viewpoints on the Moon and Mars, but greater benefits include adaptability to create a wide range of advanced technological applications in space and on earth.

“I have been winning grants, engaging students in research for a long time at FSU and this time it was different. It was a unique experience,” Bhattacharya said. “There was a high level of interest from NASA officials, scientists and industry professionals who were in the auditorium and joining online. Most importantly our three students understood the significance of the event and could envision where their university education can take them.”

Hosted at the Mary W. Jackson NASA Headquarters (named after the ‘Hidden Figure’), MSI Space Accelerator program competition awardees will be provided with funding, training, and mentorship to develop ideas for systems that can operate without human oversight for future science missions in space and on Earth.

“The initiative and funding from NASA will provide additional resources to strengthen our commitment to mentorship to our students in the STEM areas,” said Monica T. Leach, Fayetteville State University provost and senior vice chancellor for academic affairs.

In addition to funding, finalists will enroll in a 10-week accelerator program, operated by Starburst, that will help them prepare to commercialize their proposals by creating a business plan, refining their pitches, and building relationships within the field. The winning teams will also be matched with mentors at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), the leading center for the robotic exploration of the solar system.

The three student team members will join Bhattacharya in the accelerator training program while working on summer internships. Two students, Grace Vincent and Jonathan Soltren will intern at JPL. Khali Crawford will intern at the Naval Research Lab in Washington D.C., the flagship research laboratory of the United States Navy. Under Bhattacharya, the students, including many others who may be part of a future university-based startup, have been learning advanced research skills at the Intelligent Systems Laboratory.

This award is not the first for the team, who also received several previous grants from NASA and JPL.

Other MSI Space Accelerator awardees include teams based at California State University, Northridge and the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The MSI Space Accelerator competition is a partnership between NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, its Earth Science Technology Office, the Minority University Research Education Project within the agency’s Office of STEM Engagement, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California, and Starburst, a global aerospace accelerator company based in Los Angeles.

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