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'Hero' humanoid Valkyrie is NASA's newest biped robot

NASA Johnson Space Center
NASA Johnson Space Center

Next week, the robots face off. Seventeen metal titans built by humans will duke it out at the preliminary rounds of the DARPA Robotics Challenge, where teams from around the world will show off designs and software that could end up in real-life rescue robots in the coming decades. 

Weighing in at 286 pounds, the strapping 6-foot-2 humanoid Valkyrie is the newest challenger, unveiled Tuesday by engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center. It has a "full body design that can intervene in terrestrial disaster scenarios, but also walk on Mars," the team explains on the robot's entry page

At the DRC trials, robotics researchers will put their best bot forward to clear a gauntlet of tasks from "turning valves to walking up ladders to opening doors and going through them," Nicolaus Radford, project lead on the Valkyrie team, told NBC News. 

DARPA's challenge, deconstructed, is: "How do you place a robot in a remote location that has a high degree of complexity, controlling it with very limited bandwidth?" Radford said. "That’s exactly what NASA does," having sent robots into space and placed them on Mars. 

Valkyrie, which Radford has labeled a "hero" for its potentially life-saving capability, borrows hardware and software design ideologies incorporated in Robonaut, NASA's double-armed robot assistant currently helping humans on board the International Space Station. 

But Radford believes biped robots can go a step further. "There’s no question in my mind that what we’re working on right now will lead to robots and machines that will go to Mars," to join humans in exploratory teams, he said.

Valkyrie will face another NASA bot, RoboSimian, built at the Jet Propulsion Lab at Caltech. This robot comes with long "general purpose" arms and legs, custom designed hands built by collaborators at Stanford, and a design that allows the robot to reverse direction without missing a beat. 

Another bot to watch next week will be Atlas, built by Boston Dynamics, which matches Valkyrie's height inch for inch, but weighs an even more hulking 330 pounds, and has a glowing chest patch like some other iron men we know. 

— via IEEE Spectrum

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about technology and science. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter and Google+