NASA has announced that two universities will receive robots and funding for research and development to prepare the robots for extreme space missions, such as exploring Mars. The work will support NASA’s goal of using humanoid robots to assist astronauts or even take their place in certain space environments. Northeastern University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) will each receive a prototype of NASA’s R5 robot. Also known as “Valkyrie,” this six-foot-tall, 290-pound humanoid robot was originally designed for disaster relief missions, but could also be adept at traversing potentially dangerous terrain on other planets.
At MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory(CSAIL), principal investigator Russ Tedrake will lead a team in developing algorithms for the robot. Tedrake recently led a team that programmed a similar six-foot-tall humanoid robot to open doors, turn valves, drill holes, climb stairs, scramble over cinder blocks, and drive a car. He is head of CSAIL’s Robot Locomotion Group and part of CSAIL’s new research center for autonomous cars, specifically focused on advanced decision-making algorithms and systems. The Northeastern team will be led by Taskin Padir, an expert in modeling and control of robotic systems. Padir’s team will work on improving Valkyrie’s ability to complete mission-specific tasks such as exiting an airlock, using a ladder to reach Mars’ surface, repairing equipment, and collecting rock from the planet.
“Advances in robotics, including human-robotic collaboration, are critical to developing the capabilities required for our journey to Mars,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. The two university groups were chosen through a competitive selection process in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge. These recent awards are part of NASA’s upcoming Space Robotics Challenge, which aims to create more dexterous autonomous robots for extreme space environments. The challenge will include a virtual competition using robotic simulations, as well as a physical competition using the robot.