Nasa is offering a $1m prize to anyone who can make its robots capable of assisting astronauts on missions to Mars. The agency's Space Robotics Challenge tasks teams with developing software to improve the dexterity of its R5 'Valkyrie' robot so that it can carry out complicated tasks in space.
Though advancements in the dexterity of Earth-based robotics systems have been achieved using hydraulics, these cannot be used in space as the sub-zero temperatures would cause the fluid inside to freeze. Nasa's humanoid R5 robot overcomes this by using an elastics-based system instead, and while MIT researchers are already working on algorithms to help it work more effectively in space, Nasa is now opening the task up to the commercial roboticists.
Contestants in the competition will need to programme a virtual R5 robot to complete a series of tasks in a simulation of the aftermath of a dust storm that has damaged a human habitat on Mars. Teams will be faced with three objectives: aligning a communications dish, repairing a solar array and fixing a leak in the habitat. To make things even more complicated, periods of latency will be applied to reflect the communications delay between Earth and Mars.
Nasa hopes that technology developed through the competition will enable robots to participate in precursor missions to landing sites on Mars on which they could set up habitats, life support systems, communications and solar apparatuses before human astronauts arrive, and even begin preliminary research.
"Crucial to support our astronauts"
The same technology could potentially be applied to other robotics systems used for carrying out complicated tasks in dangerous or extreme environments on Earth too, the agency predicted.
"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," said Monsi Roman, programme manager of Nasa's Centennial Challenges.
"Nasa and our partners are confident the public will rise to this challenge, and are excited to see what innovative technologies will be produced."
Registration for the Space Robotics Challenge is now open, with a qualifying round running from mid-September to mid-November 2016. Finalists of the round will be announced in December, with the final virtual competition taking place in June 2017. Winners will be announced at the end of that month at Nasa's Space Centre in Houston.