Local Scientists Are Helping NASA Make Robotic Astronauts

Red planet or bust—Mars needs robots.
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NASA will send a Valkyrie robot—and as much as $500,000—to two Boston-area roboticists for testing. / Photograph courtesy of NASA

In MIT’s gleaming Stata Center, a 6-foot-2, 330-pound humanoid figure hangs from a hook attached to a steel cable. Its feet graze the ground. Its arms dangle at its sides. Created by Waltham’s Boston Dynamics, this is Atlas, one of the most advanced robots on Earth.

For two and a half years, Atlas has lived here in the lab of Russ Tedrake, the director of MIT’s Center for Robotics. Last June, Tedrake successfully used the robot in an international defense competition, drawing the attention of none other than NASA.

The space agency has been working on a humanoid robot of its own and is seeking help in readying it (or its successor) for manned missions to asteroids and Mars. NASA needs a humanoid robot because all of the agency’s tools and equipment are designed for humans. That was fine when actual humans did all the work, but in Mars’ hostile environment, a robot would be a safer bet.

To take a human’s place, NASA’s robot, called Valkyrie, will have to move and function like one. It already has arms and legs, and it can walk, see, and grasp objects. But on the Mars mission it will have to descend a ladder onto the planet’s surface, operate power tools, and collect rock samples.

Right now, Valkyrie can’t do any of these things, which is where Tedrake and Northeastern’s Taskin Padir come in. Both scientists will receive a Valkyrie robot on loan from NASA. Over the next 18 months, each of their labs will refine Valkyrie’s software for NASA’s international Space Robotics Challenge, where teams from the world’s leading robotics laboratories will then make Valkyrie even more capable.

That the two labs pioneering Valkyrie’s software development hail from the Boston area—home of heavyweights Boston Dynamics and iRobot—isn’t surprising. And the area’s importance as a robotics hub continues to grow: Last year, Amazon rebranded its North Reading subsidiary, Kiva Systems, as Amazon Robotics, and Toyota announced a $25 million autonomous-car research center at MIT. (Tedrake will be one of the center’s lead researchers.)

So Valkyrie will be right at home here, especially in Tedrake’s lab, alongside Atlas. Tedrake, who has a soft spot for Atlas, won’t yet say whether Valkyrie is the more advanced humanoid. But he is determined to find out. “I joke about robot battles between them,” he says. “Scientifically motivated battles, of course.”