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NASA To Give $1M To Anyone Who Could Make Its Robots Mars-Ready

Aug 18, 2016 03:50 AM EDT

NASA's Space Robotics Challenge is now open for registration, officials said.

The competition was created with the purpose of helping develop the capabilities of NASA's humanoid robots to assist astronauts in their journey to Mars. A prize of $1 million will be awarded to teams who can program a virtual robot, which was modeled after NASA's Robonaut 5 (R5) robot, to complete a series of tasks in a simulated Mars habitat, NASA officials said.

"Precise and dexterous robotics, able to work with a communications delay, could be used in spaceflight and ground missions to Mars and elsewhere for hazardous and complicated tasks, which will be crucial to support our astronauts," Monsi Roman, program manager of NASA's Centennial Challenges, said in a statement.

"NASA and our partners are confident the public will rise to this challenge, and are excited to see what innovative technologies will be produced."

In the simulated Martian environment, competing teams will be assigned an R5 and will be tasked to resolve different situations following a dust storm that damaged a Martian habitat. The tasks include aligning a communications disk, fixing a leak in the habitat and repairing a solar array.

Below-freezing temperatures and harsh environments in other planets could make it impossible for hydraulics-based robotic systems to operate in space. Instead of hydraulics, the R5 uses elastics technology, which could address the problems of operating in space.

The registration for the competition started on Aug. 17 and the qualifying round will be held mid-September to mid-November. Finalists will be announced in December and will be competing from January to early June in 2017.

The software that will be developed in the competition will be transferred across other robotic systems to be used by both older robotic models like the Robonaut 2 and future models to be developed.

The competition will generate a technology that would enable robots to be deployed before astronauts to set up habitats, life support systems, communications and solar apparatuses, as well as to begin preliminary scientific research.

Robonaut is also known as Valkyrie to MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). The humanoid robot placed sixth during last year's DARPA Robotics Challenge. Robonaut (aka Valkyrie) is equipped with four body cameras, 28 torque-controlled joints and over 200 individual sensors. 

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