NASA’s latest cyborg has gone to school. Its mission: independence (and to be a little less clumsy).
It may be twinkly and have stars brimming with Earth dreams, but space’s harsh conditions make it an unfriendly place. Spending just one year in zero gravity takes a toll on the human body, as evidenced by astronaut Scott Kelly’s recent tenure. And so NASA is looking to the next generation of explorers to endure long missions: humanoid robots.
At six feet tall, Valkyrie, also referred to as R5, is the newest trundle of joy in NASA’s growing robotic family. Weighing in at about 290 pounds (292 kg), its shuttle-white armor is ornate with copper-colored joints, and a NASA emblem is stationed proudly on its chest. Initially created for disaster-relief maneuvers, R5’s destiny changed when NASA announced it would award two R5 robots to university groups competing in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) for a DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC).
Since all these acronyms can be confusing, here’s a quick breakdown, for context: DARPA is a part of the U.S. Department of Defense and essentially invests in innovation to advance our national security. Some of the breakthroughs that it’s cultivated have been the internet, stealth aircraft, and the ubiquitous global positioning system. During the DRC, teams compete that help humans out, particularly during natural or man-made disasters.
Now, two of those robotics teams — the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Northeastern University — got their very own R5 android for research and software development. The goal: robot autonomy. NASA wants the robots to be useful for lengthy missions, like an arduous Mars journey. That includes simpler motor functions like grasping things to more complex tasks like repairing a busted wheel on a planetary rover like Curiosity. Oh, and not falling.
Each team has two years to figure out how to get R5 to be dextrous enough to nail tasks too dangerous for humans. They’ll have $250,000 a year and NASA support at their disposal. Later this year, the R5s will compete in the Space Robotics Challenge, which also aims o expand their independence.
Until then, you can watch Valkyrie bust some moves in this short video: