Mars-bound Valkyrie robot takes shape after NASA issues kit

Valkyrie—a humanoid machine that is 1.8m tall, and 125kg heavy—has been developed by researchers at the University of Edinburgh, who plan to send the robot to Mars before astronauts are expected to arrive there in the mid-2030s.

The ‘bot is equipped with a set of cameras, lidar, and jointed arms, and has 34 “degrees of freedom.” Valkyrie will be expected to work alongside humans on space missions. One of the main tasks for the researchers has involved working on the robot’s balance: like other similar machines, Valkyrie has to constantly make quite complex computations to alter its centre of mass just to stay upright.

“At the moment the robot is a pretty basic shell which can walk up a set of three small steps and can reach out and grip something and pass it on to someone,” director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics, professor Sethu Vijayakumar, told Herald Scotland. “It reacts if you push against it, either swaying or taking a step back.”

A wheeled platform would have improved Valkyrie’s balance, but the decision was made to develop a two-legged robot to avoid the use of ramps to help it move around.

“We want systems that work in environments built for humans,” said Vijayakumar. “Also, small wheels sometimes get stuck and big wheels are not very manoeuvrable.”

Valkyrie’s basic hardware was built by NASA, which shipped the robot to the University of Edinburgh. Scientists—together with colleagues in the Scottish city who are based at Heriot-Watt University—plan to improve the dexterity of the robot within the next three years.

“The big challenge will be getting Valkyrie to interact with people; you have to have some pretty adaptable algorithms,” Vijayakumar said.

Theoretically Valkyrie could be ready to work alongside humans within five years, the professor added. In addition to that, researchers are thinking about adapting the robot for non-space purposes, citing healthcare and disaster scenarios as examples.

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