NASA competition will see virtual robots repair a storm-damaged Martian base
NASA, in conjunction with globalinnovation consultant organization NineSigma, has launched a newcompetition aimed at pushing the limits of robotic dexterity. Knownas the Space Robotics Challenge, the competition comes with a US$ 1million prize purse, and could one day lead to robonauts setting uphabitats and life support systems prior to a manned mission to Mars.
When humanity embarks on its firstcrewed journey to Mars, the endeavor will be fraught with danger,and the very real possibility of human fatalities. NASA and itspartners are working hardto ensure that, prior to embarking on this mission, its explorers areas well prepared and as safe as possible.
In pursuit of this goal, the agency isencouraging the development of robotic companions, who can stand infor astronauts where possible when there is a high degree of risk.NASA has chosen to adopt a humanoid approach to their roboticsdesigns, as evidenced by the agency's Robonaut 5 (otherwise known as Valkyrie) automaton.
In order to prove useful to NASA inspace and on the surface of a hostile planet such as Mars, a robotworker must have a high degree of flexibility and maneuverability.This has been achieved in a terrestrial environment with the use ofhydraulic actuators. Unfortunately, hydraulic systems wouldinevitably fail in the below-freezing temperatures that will have tobe endured as an inevitable component of a mission to the Red Planet.
To avoid such a failure, NASA's R5robot is manipulated via elastics technology, which typically involves a series of motorized springs and is more resilientto the extreme environments synonymous with space exploration. TheSpace Robotics Challenge will ask applicants to program a digitalanalogue of an R5 robot driven by elastics technology. Thecompetition opens today, with a qualifying round slated formid-September. The final, which will decide the distribution of the 1million dollar prize pool, will take place in June 2017.
The virtual robotic helper must beprogrammed to undertake a series of tasks aimed at making a dust-storm-damaged Mars base operational. The simulated R5 must repair adamaged solar array, re-align a communications array, and detect andseal a habitat leak.
The tasks have been designed tohighlight the possible uses for robotic partners in future mannedmissions, including the potential of using the robonauts to prepareMars habitats prior to the arrival of their human counterparts. Thetechnology pioneered in the challenge is expected to be easilyadaptable to other robots, and could eventually help in the goal of removing humans from dangerous work environments back onEarth.