Why NASA is sending humanoids to college

NASA is particularly interested in humanoid robots because they can either assist, or act as a precursor to, astronauts working in space – but first they're off to MIT and Northeastern.

Before NASA sends its first humanoid robot to Mars, it will send it to college – in prototype form, of course.

The space agency announced Tuesday will award two Valkyrie robots, a 6-foot-tall, 290-pound humanoid, to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Cambridge, Mass., and Northeastern University in Boston for intensive research and development into the robot’s applications in extreme environments.

“Advances in robotics, including human-robotic collaboration, are critical to developing the capabilities required for our journey to Mars,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We are excited to engage these university research groups to help NASA with this next big step in robotics technology development.” 

The space agency became urgently interested in robotics following the 2011 Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station incident in Japan, which the agency says “illustrated, rather candidly, how inadequate current robotic technologies are for use in highly unstructured human environments.”

To address what it saw as a technology gap, NASA’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched the DARPA Robotics Challenge, a competition to put research teams to the test in a disaster-type setting. Teams were challenged to get an R5 prototype, similar to Valkyrie, to scale ladders, walk through rubble, and turn valves. Based on their performance in that competition, and research proposals, MIT and Northeastern came out on top.

Autonomous tasks from the life-like Valkyrie, according to NASA, can be applied not just to Earth-bound emergencies like the close call at Fukushima, but also in the extreme climes of Mars or the Moon.

Russ Tedrake, who is leading the MIT team from Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), is also taking part in CSAIL’s research center for autonomous cars, a $25 million project funded by Toyota, which is developing technology to allow vehicles to navigate and have spacial awareness without human interaction. 

NASA is particularly interested in humanoid robots because they can either assist, or act as a precursor to astronauts working in space. 

The two winning teams from MIT and Northeastern have been granted up to $250,000 a year for two years to fund their research into how Valkyrie might perform in such extreme environs, and the teams will also have access to technical support from NASA. The Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters, whose mission is to speed up the development of emerging technologies that will transform the way the space agency explores space, is funding the research.

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