NASA scientists have been secretly at work for a year on a walking, humanoid-like robot meant to evoke awe in anyone who comes across it — and it looks like they’ve accomplished their mission.
Researchers at NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas have released video footage of what they’re entering in a Pentagon-sponsored robotics contest later this month, and the evidence is enough to give just about anyone some spooky, sci-fi nightmares.
The JSC is entering a creation dubbed “Valkyrie” in this year’s DARPA Robotics Competition (hosted by the United States military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), and it very well may be one of the most realistic endeavors of its type yet.
Measuring in at around 6’2” and around 275 lbs (125 kg; 1.9m), the Valkyrie is a joint effort being undertaken by NASA and scientists at the University of Texas and Texas A&M University that will participate in a trial run later this month against five other creations courtesy of five competing groups of robotics wizzes.
Along with projects from the likes of Drexel University and Virginia Tech, the NASA/Texas team will enter Valkyrie in order to demonstrate a robotic creation designed for disaster areas that can mimic the behavior of man but with some added, lab-produced perks.
“The challenge created by DARPA involves tasks like walking over uneven terrain, climbing a ladder, using tools and driving,” Evan Ackerman wrote on Tuesday for the IEEE Spectrum, who first published video of the robotic in action. “This means that Valkyrie has to be capable of operating in the same spaces that a person would operate in, under the control of humans who have only minimal training with robots, which is why the robot's design is based on a human form,” he said.
And while the creation may indeed be human in form, its designed to do things that the average Joe might have a hard time accomplishing: mighty, interchangeable arms allow for ambidextrous control, and powerful legs provide for bipedal climbing that could put Valkyrie in situations and scenarios that a human being wouldn’t be able to transverse.
Even with humanoid features, however, the Valkyrie sports a modified design that makes it that much more different. Its arms have seven degrees of freedom and its feet feature six-axis force-torque sensors — which, along with every other aspect of what’s intended to be a fully-autonomous endeavor — is powered by a battery on the robot’s backpack, good for around an hour of use before it needs to be recharged.
"We really wanted to design the appearance of this robot to be one that when you saw it (you'd say) 'Wow. That's awesome,'" Nicolaus Radford of the NASA JSC Dextrous Robotics Lab says in the video published by IEEE Spectrum.
But with electronics aplenty, the developers of the project say they didn’t want to make something that necessarily resembles the metallic clanking robots typical of classic science fiction.
"Our robot is soft. If you brush against it while you're working, you don't want to feel this cold, hard metal. You want it to feel natural, like you're working next to another human being. The soft goods, the clothes we put on the robot, give it that feel, that appearance of being more comfortable to be near,” added Radford.
The Valkyrie is expected to go up against the competition on December 20 during the “track A” trials among DRC contestants. Meanwhile, other teams will compete in a less-advanced track that will involve a pre-designed robotic prototype from DARPA dubbed the ATLAS robot. That creation is the same height as the Valkyrie but weighs in at around 55-lbs heavier and has to be tethered to its power source, rather than rely on a backpack.