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Meet NASA’s Valkyrie. Officially designated “R5” by NASA, this humanoid robot is NASA’s entry in the 2014 DARPA Robotics Challenge. As NASA looks to its Mars 2020 mission and beyond, robotic developments such as Valkyrie are an essential step in the path to landing humans on Mars.

Valkyrie is developed from the platform of the Boston Dynamics Atlas robot, though Valkyrie has a significant advantage over Atlas (which is tethered with a power cable), in the form of a battery “backpack,” which can be changed out quickly and with relative ease. Valkyrie’s system of cameras and sensors help give it improved performance on complex terrain.  The robot has 44 moveable joints (“degrees of freedom”) and weighs about 320 pounds (144 kilograms).  It can run about an hour on one battery, and should be capable of autonomous terrain navigation among a host of other feats, once they finish working the kinks out.

Valkyrie, or “Val”, as the NASA JSC team calls her informally, was tied for last place in the previous round of DARPA challenges last December 20, scoring no points at all in the challenges given to the sixteen participating teams.  The robot faces a new DARPA challenge this year in 2014, and may fare better than its first outing given that the JSC team encountered various situations that hampered their efforts in 2013, not the least of which was the government shutdown.

Val is certainly female in appearance.  The teams were instructed not to attempt to give their robots gender, but the NASA team appears to have done it anyway.  The upper torso has a certain voluptuous line to it that can only be described as female, though this is due to the space in the chest required for the actuators.  She’s clad in soft material as well.  In part it’s to make her easier for humans to be around.  We like soft things, because other people are soft.  Brushing up against Val by accident while working with her shouldn’t be a bad experience.  The other rationale is that the soft parts protect Val in case she falls, which is a very real possibility.  She has to deal with gravity and the risk of falling, unlike her closely related cousin Robonaut, which was built for working in zero gravity and has no such design constraint.  The soft bits are firm foam wrapped in fabric, so it’s sort of a cross between clothes, body padding, and upholstery.

The robots in the DARPA competition are put through their paces driving vehicles, climbing a ladder, navigating an obstacle course, using various tools, and performing other tasks that will demonstrate their ability to prepare the way for humans on Mars and beyond. These are likely the grandparents or great grandparents of the ‘bots that will actually travel to Mars, but the lines are being established and refined at an amazing pace.  Considering that the NASA JSC are sort of the underdogs at this point, we’re looking forward to seeing what Val can do in the 2014 DARPA Robotics Challenge.

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