NASA has been developing a humanoid robot to assist astronauts on the mission to Mars. ‘Valkyrie’ or ‘R5’ is a six-foot robot that was designed to work in disaster zones but is now being co-opted for space missions. Valkyrie’s human-like shape allows the robot to help humans during the mission to Mars, and possibly replace them as well.
Valkyrie is able to ‘see’ its environment thanks to sensors and cameras installed in its head. It can also walk and grab objects with its hand, which consists of three fingers and a thumb. The robot also uses elastics technology instead of hydraulics, as robots made using hydraulics would freeze in the sub-zero environment of Mars, where temperatures can be as low as -176 degrees Celsius.
NASA says that humanoid robots will play a crucial role in these long-duration space missions for a number of reasons.
Assistance from humanoid robots
The extreme nature of space environments makes it very difficult and risky for human astronauts to carry out essential duties during space missions. Humanoid robots, on the other hand, could avoid being affected by these harsh conditions, such as extreme heat and cold, and high-energy radiation.
Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA, says:
Advances in robotics, including human-robotic collaboration, are critical to developing the capabilities required for our journey to Mars.
NASA previously launched a Space Robots Challenge, asking engineers to develop a robot – modelled on Valkryie – that is able to carry out virtual tasks that could end up saving an astronaut’s life, including fixing leaks.
Part of the challenge involves improving the dexterity of the robot so that it can carry out more delicate operations with its hands. Monsi Roman, program manager of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, said:
Precise and dexterous robotics, able to work with a communications delay, could be used in spaceflight and ground missions to Mars and elsewhere for hazardous and complicated tasks, which will be crucial to support our astronauts.
In the competition, held in a virtual environment, each team’s Valkyrie had to deal with the damage caused to a Martian habitat by a dust storm. The robot had three tasks to do: align a communications dish, repair a solar array, and fix a leak. Delays in communication between Earth and Mars were also simulated.
The winner of the competition was Kevin Knoedler, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate and father-of-two. Amazingly, he finished the course in a single perfect run, which was designed to be impossible. Meridyth Moore, public relations specialist at Space Center Houston, said:
The task at hand was challenging and was meant to get people engaged at a very high level of robotics challenge courses. Knoedler achieved something we didn’t believe could be done. He went above and beyond what we thought was possible.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh and Heriot-Watt University are working on improving Valkyrie’s handling and walking capabilities, its on-board sensors and its manoeuvrability. The researchers are also developing the robot’s ability to interact closely and safely with crewmembers and other machines.
Professor Sethu Vijayakumar, Chair of Robotics at the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, says this is a “huge scientific undertaking” and is committed to “pushing the state of the art in humanoid robotics.” Valkyrie, which originally had an earth-based purpose, is now becoming much more sophisticated in its skills. These improvements could make Valkyrie even more effective in disaster situations on Earth, as well as various other scenarios and environments.
NASA’s aim is to have humanoid robots accompanying astronauts on the mission to Mars by 2030.
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
Sam is a writer who is especially interested in space exploration, sustainability, tech, agriculture, and nutrition.