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Mace and Crown | May 24, 2018

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NASA Launches the Space Robotics Challenge

Ross Reelachart
Technology Editor

NASA, working with global innovation consulting organization NineSigma, launched a new competition, the “Space Robotics Challenge,” where teams are tasked with programing a virtual robot to perform a series of tasks in a simulated Mars mission. With a prize of $1 million, participating teams will help “develop the capabilities of humanoid robots to help astronauts on the journey to Mars.”

With every passing month, the prospect of a manned-mission to Mars seems even closer than was previously predicted. As innovations in rocket science continue to increase, both from federal organizations like NASA and from private firms like SpaceX, it is becoming clearer that these organizations need to consider preparing for a mission to our red neighbor. Of the many obstacles posed by sending astronauts to Mars, one of them is solving the problem of limited manpower. Like many other organizations interested in space travel, NASA is considering the use of robotic helpers to supplement a Mars-bound crew.

The virtual robot is modeled on the current iteration of NASA’s R5 Valkyrie robots, two of which are currently lent to MIT and Northeastern University for research and development. The current R5 robot was designed to be particularly “dextrous,” or good with finely manipulating its hands and fingers like a human would be able to. To accomplish that, the R5 robot uses elastic technology which simulates the structure and mechanics of human muscles, which also has the benefit of being more reliable in the harsh sub-zero climate of the Mars surface. With that in mind, the “Space Robotics Challenge” involves programming the virtual robot to resolve the aftermath of a dust storm on a simulated Martian habitat. The situation would specifically involve repairing a damaged solar array, re-aligning a communications array, and detecting and sealing a habitat leak. Whatever programming the teams develop, it must also be transferrable to other robotic systems, so it can be used by other NASA robots.

Once the Valkyrie robots and their programming have been developed enough to be satisfactory for a Mars mission, the robots may be sent ahead of the manned mission to establish a preliminary base or other necessary functions. They might also be left behind to continue to maintain the base after the humans leave to return to Earth.

The qualifying rounds for the “Space Robotics Challenge” will run from September to November, and the winners will be announced in December. The finalists will have until June 2017 to develop their programming, when the final winner will be announced.