NASA has awarded contracts to two universities to further develop software for their Robonaut 5; also known as R-5 but dubbed the Valkyrie. This advanced bipedal humanoid robot was originally built for disaster response by the NASA JSC team along with the University of Texas and Texas A & M. Another version, the Robonaut-2 humanoid upper torso, was developed to work in micro-gravity. One currently works on the International Space Station (ISS), undertaking hazardous and caretaking work to relieve human astronauts. NASA now wants the Valkyrie to become more autonomous so as to be useful for missions such as on Mars which has about 1/3 the gravity of earth.
The Valkyrie’s humanoid form means it can use the same spaces and equipment as astronauts. It is some 6 feet tall and weighs around 125kg (275 lbs). A rear battery pack means it can walk around, climb ladders and work generally without tethering cables. Its range of movement mimics human dexterity: seven degrees of freedom in its arms, legs and hands with six and a pelvis with three degrees of freedom. The hands only have three fingers along with a thumb but with actuated wrists and hands will still be able to use tools. The head can tilt and swivel, there is a wide array of sensors all over the body and its feet boast six-axis force torque sensors. NASA’s Human Robotic Systems along with the Florida Institute for Human Machine Cognition have worked on the Valkyrie’s mobility software to improve balance, walking and mobile manipulation.
Now two Massachusetts universities have been awarded further development contracts: MIT in Cambridge and Northeastern University in Boston. Eventually the Valkyrie robots upgraded by each team will be physically pitted against each other in a Space Robotics Challenge involving a range of tasks which could be expected to be performed on a planetary surface. It is entirely feasible such robots will be working on Mars before astronauts, teleoperating them from an orbiting craft, commit to the extremely hazardous surface.
An important question not yet answered is whether the Valkyrie is female? In Norse mythology, Valkyries were women with supernatural powers who selected the most valiant of those fallen on a battlefield to be taken to Valhalla. Given Mars was the Roman god of war, it seems quite appropriate for Valkyries to be present. However I wonder if the ones chosen to eventually travel to Mars will bear mythical Valkyries’ personal names?