NASA Unveils Valkyrie: 6-Foot 'Superhero Robot' Will Compete In The DARPA Robotics Challenge —And Maybe Go To Mars [VIDEO]

By Josh Lieberman on December 11, 2013 6:09 PM EST

nasa robot
NASA has developed Valkyrie for the DARPA Robotics Challenge. The humanoid robot could potentially be used alongside astronauts heading to Mars. (Photo: NASA Johnson Space Center)

NASA has unveiled Valkyrie, a 6.2-foot, 275-pound humanoid "superhero robot" created to compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge. With the ability to walk untethered, pick up objects and use tools, Valkyrie could one day be used for search and rescue operations on earth. NASA also sees Valkyrie accompanying astronauts to Mars, or going before humans do as a sort of advance team.

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"NASA saw a considerable overlap between what the [DARPA Robotics Challenge] was trying to accomplish and NASA's goals as an agency," said Nicolaus Radford of the NASA JSC Dextrous Robotics Lab. "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."

Valkyrie is highly dexterous, with a modular design that includes swappable left and right arms, a change that can be made "in a matter of minutes," according to Radford. The robot also features actuated wrists and hands and a head that can tilt up and down and swivel from side to side. A battery in Valkyrie's backpack provides the humanoid with one hour of power. All of this robotic muscle and metal is covered in a layer of "clothing," partially to protect Valkyrie when bumping into things, but for another more interesting reason too.

"Our robot is soft," Radford told IEEE. "If you brush against it while you're working, you don't want to feel this cold, hard metal. You want it to feel natural, like you're working next to another human being. The soft goods, the clothes we put on the robot, give it that feel, that appearance of being more comfortable to be near."

One robot that doesn't look so comfortable to be near is Atlas, a Boston Dynamics robot competing against Valkyrie for the DARPA Robotics Challenge. Like Valkyrie, Atlas is a bipedal robot capable of walking over rubble, but unlike Valkyrie, Atlas operates with a power tether. In October, Boston Dynamics released incredible video of Atlas keeping its balance after being struck by objects.

Begun in 2012, the DARPA Robotics Challenge calls for the development of "ground robots capable of executing complex tasks in dangerous, degraded, human-engineered environments." The robots are meant to work alongside humans, and to that end they should be able to use standard tools and equipment, including vehicles. The next round of trials for the Challenge will see seventeen international teams compete next week in Miami, Fla. In 2014, a winning team will be selected for a $2 million prize.

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