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NASA unveils 6-foot 'superhero robot' Valkyrie

Designed to compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge, this "female" robot could be the precursor to robo-astronauts that will help colonize Mars.

Valkyrie robot
Valkyrie has 44 axes of movement and interchangeable arms.
IEEE Spectrum

What if NASA's Robonaut grew legs and indulged in steroids? The result might be close to what NASA has unveiled: Valkyrie is a humanoid machine billed as a "superhero robot."

Developed at the Johnson Space Center, Valkyrie is a 6.2-foot, 275-pound hulk designed to compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC).

It will go toe to toe with the Terminator-like Atlas robot from Boston Dynamics in what's shaping up to be an amazing modern-day duel.

In an interesting twist, Valkyrie seems to be a girl. While officially genderless, "Valkyrie" (a nickname, since the official designation is R5) evokes the goddess-like females of Norse myth.

Its Iron Man-style glowing chest ring nestles in a pronounced bosom that contains linear actuators for waist rotation.

"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 below by IEEE Spectrum.

"When we were designing the robot, we were thinking about the competition from day one, and we wanted a very modular system. Specifically with the arm, we can yank one bolt and one connector, and we can take the arm off. It happens in a matter of minutes."

Valkyrie has 44 degrees of freedom, or axes of rotation in its joints, meaning it's a relatively flexible machine in terms of movement. Its power source is a battery stored in a backpack that can provide it with about an hour of juice.

Its sensors include sonar and LIDAR, as well as head, arm, abdomen, and leg cameras so operators can see whatever the robot is doing from multiple viewpoints.

Developed with the University of Texas and Texas A&M University, Valkyrie can walk around untethered, and pick up and manipulate objects, which are essential skills for the DARPA challenge.

The DRC is designed to help evolve machines that can cope with disasters and hazardous environments like nuclear power plant accidents. Participants will be presented with tasks such as driving a utility vehicle, walking over uneven terrain, clearing debris, breaking through a wall, closing a valve, and connecting a fire hose.

NASA, however, sees the DRC as part of its mission to explore space.

"NASA saw a considerable overlap between what the DRC was trying to accomplish and NASA's goals as an agency," says Radford. "We want to get to Mars. Likely, NASA will send robots ahead of the astronauts to the planet. These robots will start preparing the way for the human explorers, and when the humans arrive, the robots and the humans will work together."

The DARPA challenge gets going this month with a preliminary competition. Check out more details on Valkyrie in the vid below.

(Via IEEE Spectrum)