NASA counting on humanoid robots for deep space exploration

As humanity moves outward into space, it will need to be prepared for risky and extremely hazardous environments such as those crewed missions to Mars and asteroids will encounter. Having fully-operational robotic help ready to assist in dangerous tasks could be critical during long-duration missions beyond Earth. NASA is seriously considering this matter and it could usher in an age of new humanoid robots.

“NASA is counting on robots to setup and care for deep space exploration facilities and equipment pre-deployed ahead of astronauts. Robots are also excellent precursors for conducting science missions ahead of human exploration,” Sasha Congiu Ellis of NASA’s Langley Research Center, told

That’s why the agency is developing a six-foot tall humanoid robot called ‘R5,’ which was previously known as ‘Valkyrie.’ The mechanoid weighs in at about 290 lbs. (292 kg). It was initially designed for use during disaster-relief missions. In November of 2015, NASA provided two R5 robots to university groups competing in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge (DRC).

One robot is being tested by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) located in Cambridge, Massachusetts under its Robust Autonomy for Extreme Space Environments program.

The second android was given to the Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts for its Accessible Testing on Humanoid-Robot-R5 and Evaluation of NASA Administered (ATHENA) Space Robotics Challenge.

According to the U.S. space agency, the teams have two years in which to perform research and software development in order to improve the robot’s autonomy. They will also be receiving $250,000 a year for two years and have access to onsite and virtual technical support from the agency. Moreover, the robots will compete in a Space Robotics Challenge through NASA’s Centennial Challenge Program.

“This will be our first hands-on experience with this hardware. We will leverage our lessons learned from the DARPA Robotics Challenge to perform tasks relevant to future space missions with Valkyrie autonomously,” Taskin Padir, the principal investigator of ATHENA at the Northeastern University, told SpaceFlight Insider.

Padir’s team will try to make contributions in this field in three main areas, constrained motion planning and control, grasping of unknown objects, and human-robot interaction. Their testing strategy will rely on completing these tasks by progressing from teleoperation to full autonomy.

Tasks for the ATHENA program include collecting or recovering desired samples or items, such as Mars soil and rocks as well as exiting a habitat airlock hatch and using a ladder to reach the surface. After demonstrating it can handle that, the next test will determine if the robot is capable of removing a communications or power cable from a soft-goods storage location and attach it to a connector located at least 33 feet (10 meters) away, while traversing an irregular rocky terrain, like it would encounter on the surface of the Red Planet.

The task list concludes with repairing or replacing damaged components on complex equipment, such as a broken valve or a damaged tire on a planetary rover.

Ellis admitted that all these tests are Mars-oriented as the Red Planet is perceived as the next step for humanity in terms of space exploration.

“The universities selected as hosts for NASA robots will be asked to validate tasks like those needed on a Mars mission, pre deploying and setting up equipment ahead of human members of the crew,” she said.

Creating more dexterous autonomous robots, designed to operate in extreme space environments could be crucial for expeditions to Mars and beyond. Humanoid machines could easily undertake activities dangerous for future astronauts.

“Extreme space environments are dangerous for humans. And, robots are ideal for dangerous tasks. NASA already has rovers on Mars. This is an effort to advance autonomy of humanoid robots. We will have a better understanding of when and how humanoid robots will help with future deep space exploration missions as we continue our research and development in this field,” Padir said.

“NASA has the first of this new class of care taking robot onboard the ISS today. Called Robonaut 2, this system is being used to develop and test new approaches for robots to perform maintenance and repair tasks,” Ellis noted.

In fact, in developing R5, NASA is relying on experience coming from the Robonaut project. The latest version of this humanoid robot, Robonaut 2, flew to the International Space Station (ISS) in 2011 as a part of the payload for STS-133 – the final flight of space shuttle Discovery.

Developed via a public-private partnership between NASA and General Motors, Robonaut 2 was built as a prototype to work on Earth but was sent to ISS and is completing regular and repetitive tasks inside the orbiting laboratory, like pressing buttons, flipping, switches and turning knobs. It also worked with two tools: the air flow meter and an RFID inventory scanner. In 2014, the robot received a pair of climbing legs to help it move around the station. It could help to one day pave the way for future, more complex humanoid robots like R5.

The R5 project is a part of NASA’s Game Changing Development Program. Langley Research Center manages this program for the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.



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