NASA Sends Humanoid Robots to MIT to Develop Artificial Intelligence for Future Space Missions

Nov 20, 2015

If one thing has been learned in the last half century, it’s that sending astronauts into the harsh, unforgiving environment of space is both dangerous and expensive. To find a way to minimize risk and cost, NASA is sending a pair of prototype humanoid robots back to school. The space agency is giving two R5 “Valkyrie” robots to university groups at MIT and Northeastern University for advanced research and development of robotic astronauts that could act as vanguards for manned missions or as assistants for humans traveling to Mars.

NASA selected the two universities from a competition between university groups that participated in the 2015 DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC). The winners are the Robust Autonomy for Extreme Space Environments program at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), and the Accessible Testing on Humanoid-Robot-R5 and Evaluation of NASA Administered (ATHENA) Space Robotics Challenge at Northeastern University in Boston. Each will receive one of the R5 robots.

Standing 6 ft (1.9 m) high and weighing 290 lb (125 kg), the formidable-looking humanoid R5 was built by NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the University of Texas and Texas A&M.

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9 comments on “NASA Sends Humanoid Robots to MIT to Develop Artificial Intelligence for Future Space Missions

  • I’m reminded of the Challenger tragedy, a film about which was made with William Hurt playing Richard Feynman, who was eventually persuaded by his wife to, against his better judgement, go to Washington and involve himself in the investigation into the eminently avoidable disaster.

    Challenger was a double entendre, in that Feynman being beholden to no one was able to delve unfettered into everything, and eventually find the cause of the explosion; a simple o-ring, which had not been properly produced in order to save money and political face.

    It was at the end of that investigation that Feynman gave his address which ended “… for nature cannot be fooled.”. There’s a telling photo of the team of investigators with Feynman standing right off to one side at the back, as if not wanting to be seen.

    Thank goodness those kinds of political stunts are now a thing of the past.



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  • @OP – Standing 6 ft (1.9 m) high and weighing 290 lb (125 kg), the formidable-looking humanoid R5 was built by NASA’s Johnson Space Center and the University of Texas and Texas A&M.

    This is a follow on, from the Robonaut 2 mission on the International Space Station.

    http://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/station/main/robonaut.html#.Vk-HPF4R9Vk
    NASA engineers have developed climbing legs for the International Space Station’s robotic crew member Robonaut 2 (R2), marking another milestone in space humanoid robotics.

    R2, is attached to a support post, and undergoing experimental trials with astronauts aboard the orbiting laboratory. Since its arrival at the station in February 2011, R2 has performed a series of tasks to demonstrate its functionality in microgravity.

    These new legs, funded by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations and Space Technology mission directorates, will provide R2 the mobility it needs to help with regular and repetitive tasks inside and outside the space station. The goal is to free up the crew for more critical work, including scientific research.



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  • a simple o-ring, which had not been properly produced

    I believe that due to the low temperature at launch, the o-ring was used outside its safe parameter envelope. The SRB manufacturer management ignored their own engineers who told them so.

    Thank goodness those kinds of political stunts are now a thing of the past.

    I don’t think they ever will be; politicians will never change.



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  • Stafford Gordon
    Nov 20, 2015 at 11:30 am

    Thank goodness those kinds of political stunts are now a thing of the past.

    The subsequent Columbia Shuttle disaster, suggests that nothing was learned from the Challenger disaster about doing proper tests and listening to engineers!
    Both disasters resulted from yes-men bashing on regardless, when warning flags were raised.



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  • Planetary Paul
    Nov 20, 2015 at 7:41 pm

    a simple o-ring, which had not been properly produced

    I believe that due to the low temperature at launch, the o-ring was used outside its safe parameter envelope.

    The outer o-ring had been properly produced, but the engineers had warned that when cold, it was too stiff and unelastic to seal properly so should not be used at below about 7°c. The inner back-up o-rings had never worked. They scraped the ice off the rocket and launched.

    (Oh! BTW; There were no engineering reasons why the rockets were built in sections requiring o-rings in the first place. – The reasons were political.)

    The SRB manufacturer management ignored their own engineers who told them so.

    It is worse than that! The manufacturer’s administrators (Morton Thiokol) told Nasa that, (despite their own engineers warnings), “there was no evidence the rings would fail”!
    They did not tell Nasa there was no conclusive evidence, because THEY had refused the engineers funding to carry out the tests!



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  • The point of humanoid robots, is that they can use human tools, carry out human-type dexterous activities, operate control systems which are designed for use by humans, and fit into seats and spaces designed for humans.

    For pure robotic operation – such as the work of the Mars Rover or outer Solar-System space probes, no humanoid form is required.



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  • 8
    NearlyNakedApe says:

    An interesting coincidence in the sequence of news articles made it so that the article right after this one is about Quantum entanglement in semiconductor wafers at room temperature .

    I find it interesting because this is exactly where my imagination took me after reading this article. We all know how ill-adapted human life is to interplanetary travel, this for many reasons. I can envision a future in which all space exploration will be done by sophisticated robots equipped with artificial intelligence. Personally, I think it’s THE way to go.

    But one problem remains: back and forth communication across vast distances of interplanetary space and perhaps someday interstellar space is limited by the speed of light. It would take hours to months to even years in some cases to relay instructions to and receive incoming data from our automaton explorers.

    But what if?… (caveat: the inner child fascinated by science fiction is going on a huge limb here…)

    What if we could someday build quantum computer twins which would be fully entangled, like perfect mirror copies of one another. Place one computer inside the robot’s brain and the other at Mission Control, operated by an astronaut. Instructions and data would be relayed instantly, regardless of distance.

    The robot could run in artificial intelligence mode for the most mundane tasks and be pre-programmed to switch to “avatar mode” (I just had to wedge that in) for the most complex tasks. These next generation astronauts would in a way be like the current Air Force drone pilots. Deep space exploration would be performed from a control room. No more physical risk or discomfort. Once their shift ends, they get to go back home every evening to their families.



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  • Interesting scenario!

    drone pilots – control room

    Let’s hope the imagined astronauts don’t go rouge; to wit – according to one article, some of the control room pilots get bored, sleepy, and / or detached from the screen image.

    The robot could run in artificial intelligence

    “I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that.”



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