NASA, in conjunction with global innovation consultant organization NineSigma, has launched a new competition aimed at pushing the limits of robotic dexterity. Known as the Space Robotics Challenge, the competition comes with a US$ 1 million prize purse, and could one day lead to robonauts setting up habitats and life support systems prior to a manned mission to Mars.
When humanity embarks on its first crewed journey to Mars, the endeavor will be fraught with danger, and the very real possibility of human fatalities. NASA and its partners are working hard to ensure that, prior to embarking on this mission, its explorers are as well prepared and as safe as possible.
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In pursuit of this goal, the agency is encouraging the development of robotic companions, who can stand in for astronauts where possible when there is a high degree of risk. NASA has chosen to adopt a humanoid approach to their robotics designs, as evidenced by the agency's Robonaut 5 (otherwise known as Valkyrie) automaton.
In order to prove useful to NASA in space and on the surface of a hostile planet such as Mars, a robot worker must have a high degree of flexibility and maneuverability. This has been achieved in a terrestrial environment with the use of hydraulic actuators. Unfortunately, hydraulic systems would inevitably fail in the below-freezing temperatures that will have to be endured as an inevitable component of a mission to the Red Planet.
To avoid such a failure, NASA's R5 robot is manipulated via elastics technology, which typically involves a series of motorized springs and is more resilient to the extreme environments synonymous with space exploration. The Space Robotics Challenge will ask applicants to program a digital analogue of an R5 robot driven by elastics technology. The competition opens today, with a qualifying round slated for mid-September. The final, which will decide the distribution of the 1 million dollar prize pool, will take place in June 2017.
The virtual robotic helper must be programmed to undertake a series of tasks aimed at making a dust-storm-damaged Mars base operational. The simulated R5 must repair a damaged solar array, re-align a communications array, and detect and seal a habitat leak.
The tasks have been designed to highlight the possible uses for robotic partners in future manned missions, including the potential of using the robonauts to prepare Mars habitats prior to the arrival of their human counterparts. The technology pioneered in the challenge is expected to be easily adaptable to other robots, and could eventually help in the goal of removing humans from dangerous work environments back on Earth.