‘Star Wars’-like NASA Robot Coming to Campus

‘Valkyrie’ to Undergo Testing at the University’s NERVE Center

NASA's Valkyrie robot
“Valkyrie,” NASA’s latest generation of humanoid robots, stands 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs about 300 pounds. 

01/07/2016
By Edwin L. Aguirre

A state-of-the-art NASA robot prototype will soon be taking up residence at the university’s robotics testing lab, and researchers will begin experiments on how the human-like machine can assist astronauts in future space exploration. 

The R5 robot, also known as “Valkyrie,” will stay at the New England Robotics Validation and Experimentation (NERVE) Center for the next two years as part of a research collaboration between Northeastern University and UMass Lowell. MIT will also be getting its own R5 unit. NASA recently chose the two university teams to receive the robots after a competitive selection process in order to conduct further research and development into how these advanced bipedal machines interact with humans. Each team will receive up to $250,000 a year for two years to fund the study as well as technical support from the space agency.

“Advances in robotics, including human-robotic collaboration, are critical to developing the capabilities required for our journey to Mars,” Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., said in a press release. “We are excited to engage these university research groups to help NASA with this next big step in robotics technology development.”

Working Together in Space

“We’re incredibly excited to have Valkyrie on campus,” say Adam Norton, manager of the NERVE Center. “R5 is expected to be delivered by NASA in February.”

Valkyrie stands 6 feet, 2 inches tall and weighs about 300 pounds. Its head contains high-resolution sensors that operate in three modes — laser, 3-D stereo and video — to enable the robot to visualize and map its surroundings, while the torso is equipped with hazard cameras to allow it to navigate around obstacles. There are also video cameras mounted on the forearms, knees and legs so the robot operator can see what R5 is doing or where it is heading.

R5’s hands, arms, pelvis and legs have a total of 44 “degrees of freedom” (rotational movements), giving the robot the dexterity to operate tools and perform a wide variety of tasks and experiments. The completely self-contained unit runs on two Intel Core i7 COM Express processors loaded with Ubuntu Linux and custom control software and is powered by an internal 2-kilowatt-hour rechargeable battery on its back.

“There are only four such robots in the world,” says UMass Lowell computer science Prof. Holly Yanco. “The other two are at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, which built R5, and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. They will be invaluable as NASA embarks on missions such as building permanent bases on the Moon or Mars and exploring asteroids and other extreme environments in the next decades.”

An expert in robotics, assistive technology and artificial intelligence, Yanco directs the NERVE Center and is the latest recipient of the Distinguished University Professor award. She is collaborating with Northeastern University professors Taskin Padir and Robert Platt on the R5 project.

“This is a unique opportunity for the robotics community,” noted Padir in the school’s website. “Hosting R5 at the NERVE Center, the largest indoor robot test facility in New England, will make this cutting-edge humanoid robot accessible to many robotics researchers. It also gives our team both at Northeastern and UMass Lowell an opportunity to advance the research on humanoids.”

To Mars and Beyond

“Our goal is to help NASA develop test courses for the 2017 Space Robotics Challenge,” says Yanco. “We also want to study human-robot interaction with the R5 humanoid robot. NASA’s vision is to be able to send robots to build the crew habitats in advance of the arrival of astronauts, whether it’s on the Moon or Mars. Once astronauts arrive, the robots can continue to work alongside their human counterparts.”

The researchers will also validate the robot’s autonomous skills needed for planetary exploration missions, such as exiting an airlock, going down a ladder to reach the lunar or Martian surface, collecting rock samples and operating equipment.

“We will use all of the NERVE Center’s test courses to put Valkyrie through its paces, except for the fording basin, splash pool and rain simulator,” says Norton. “Valkyrie cannot be exposed to water.”

The center’s 10,000-square-foot facility has apparatuses to test the robot’s mobility across different terrain (ramps, sand, gravel) and obstacles as well as manipulation (grasping, lifting) and visual acuity of the optical sensors.

To prepare for Valkyrie’s arrival, Yanco and two computer science students — undergraduate Jordan Allspaw and graduate Carlos Ibarra-Lopez — will spend two weeks at Johnson Space Center in January to train how to operate, maintain and program the robot. In 2013, Ibarra-Lopez remotely operated the Rover Hawk team’s vehicle from the NERVE Center during NASA’s Robo-Ops competition held at the JSC facility in Houston. The team took home first prize.

Exciting Times Ahead

Valkyrie was originally built to compete in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge. The goal of the DARPA contest was to design robots that could provide first response to natural and manmade disasters, like the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear catastrophe in Japan. While R5’s mission has evolved to planetary exploration, its sibling, a legless humanoid robot designated Robonaut 2, or R2, is designed to work in zero-gravity. R2, which is currently orbiting Earth aboard the International Space Station, is intended to take over tasks deemed too tedious or hazardous for the astronaut crew.

“Valkyrie will open up a whole new line of research for us,” says Yanco. “We are currently working with the Army’s Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, partly through the HEROES initiative, to develop testing methods and metrics for exoskeletons, which are external skeletons that support and protect a soldier’s body. We are also working with our Department of Physical Therapy in studying robot-assisted walking for patients with spinal injuries.”

“All of the robots we’ve tested so far at the center use tracks or wheels for locomotion,” explains Norton. “Valkyrie will be the first one to have a pair of legs, arms and life-like, articulated hands and fingers, so we can study bipedal locomotion, two-handed grasping and manipulation, object recognition and 3-D modeling of the environment, among other things.”

“These are very exciting times for robotics research,” adds Yanco.