Nasa offers $1m in humanoid Mars robot competition

Nasa's Robonaut R5
Image caption Nasa's Robonaut R5 robot is also known as Valkyrie

Nasa has opened a competition inviting teams of people to program a robot capable of helping with missions to Mars.

The robot will be modelled on Nasa's Robonaut 5 (R5), a bipedal humanoid robot designed to complete tasks in planetary surfaces.

The aim is to program it to successfully fix equipment damaged by a dust storm in a virtual environment.

Nasa is offering the winning team a prize of $1m (£759,000).

The organisation currently has two types of Robonauts to support astronauts during spaceflight and ground missions to Mars by completing dangerous or complicated tasks - the R2 and the R5, or Valkyrie.

Both machines resemble humans as this makes them more adept at completing the same tasks as a human, according to Nasa, and they can hold and use tools in the same way humans would.

"Humanoid robots are being used in these kind of missions because for people with limited experience dealing with robots, humanoid robots are easier to interact with than with mechanical, featureless units," said Dr Kevin Curran, a senior member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and Reader in Computer Science at Ulster University.

"The ability for astronauts to naturally communicate with such humanoids is important. Research to date has shown the benefits of utilising anthropomorphic robots which engage people in natural and expressive face-to-face interaction."

More mechanical robots need to be adapted and changed for their environments, whereas humanoid units can operate alongside humans without special modification, he added

Image copyright Thinkstock
Image caption The first manned missions to Mars are expected in the 2030s

Aligning a communications dish, repairing a solar array (multiple solar panels) and fixing a habitat leak are the three specific tasks the Space Robotics Competition teams will undertake.

Nasa hopes the challenge will produce software to help robots travel to planets independently and set up habitats and life support systems well ahead of astronauts arriving.

The first manned missions to Mars are expected in the 2030s.

The R5 robot operates using elastics technology instead of more traditional hydraulics systems, in order for it to work in difficult planetary surface conditions, and the sub-zero temperatures of space, Nasa said.

This allows it to rotate its arms and pelvis as a human would.

It measures 6ft 2in high (1.88m) and weighs 21 stone 4lb (136kg).

Image copyright NASA
Image caption The older R2 robot can handle and use tools as a human would

An R2 robot, which was designed to maintain spacecraft when its human counterparts are not there, is currently on the International Space Station.

Registration for the competition is now open, and a qualifying round will be held from mid-September. The winners are due to be announced in June 2017.

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