Some good photos today of the Valkyrie humanoid robot body, a testbed for developing more agile Robots That Jump. The robot was developed at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The R5 robot is supposed to serve on missions to the planet Mars, and “beyond”. The article describes a future with the robot working autonomously on a base which NASA would establish on Mars years ahead of human astronauts. In other words, the astronauts wouldn’t land in Martian wilderness, instead coming down to a nascent Martian town created by robots of this type.
The actual description of use is described in NASA’s current plan for Mars, at this link:
NASA plans a gradual approach to the planet, which might include astronauts in “transit” vehicles who fly by or orbit Mars, but never reach the surface. In addition, robots will be used to maintain equipment landed on the Martian surface long before the astronauts arrive.
Two questions, though…
- If we have robots, why send humans to Mars at all?
- If NASA is farming out these robots to universities due to lousy software, do we have any realistic hope of autonomous robots, even in the 2030s timeframe that NASA has set for Mars missions?
The answer to the first question is easy. Maintenance by a humanoid robot would require fine motor control, and no humanoid robot has that currently. NASA entered this robot in the DARPA Humanoid challenge, but it, like the other robots, didn’t fare so well, even when in tele-operation instead of autonomous mode. Hence, farming out the robot bodies to schools. While is is possible there will be a breakthrough from these efforts, it is also quite possible that the delicate motor control required for, say, adjusting solar panels or tightening gears would be beyond even a 2030s robot. So, humans will be essential.
Second, the NASA plan shows what is really being looked for is tele-operation. If NASA plans a stage where astronauts orbit Mars without landing (possibly staying at one of the Martian moons) then their likely job will be to make the robots work down on the surface. From earth, the delays in sending and receiving radio signals prevent tele-operation. But in orbit, the delays would be a fraction of a second, making it practical to control the robots in real time.
So, what we really have going to Mars is not a true Robot That Jumps, but instead a robot body, probably controlled via a virtual reality interface with haptics (touch feedback). This, unlike self-governed robots, really seems practical – or at least as practical as a Mars trip in general.
So, the human counterpart the Mars robot might be a very excited astronaut, as below:
Of course, NAS probably won’t allow beard, but you get the picture.