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Robots set the table for human life on Mars

Robots set the table for human life on Mars

LOWELL: Four sister robots built by Nasa could be pioneers in the colonisation of Mars, part of an advance construction team that sets up a habitat for more fragile human explorers. But first they’re finding new homes on Earth and engineers to hone their skills.

The space agency has kept one Valkyrie robot at its birthplace, the Johnson Space Centre in Houston. It has loaned three others to universities in Massachusetts and Scotland so professors and students can tinker with the 6-foot-tall, 300-pound humanoids and make them more autonomous.

One of the robots, nicknamed Val, still hasn’t quite harmonised its 28 torque-controlled joints and nearly 200 sensors after arriving at a robotics centre at the University of Massachusetts — Lowell.

Engineering students let the electricity-powered robot down from a harness and tried to let it walk, only to watch as Val’s legs awkwardly lurched and locked into a ballet pose.

“That doesn’t look good,” said Taskin Padir, a professor at Northeastern University, noting Val’s $2 million price tag. Northeastern and UMass-Lowell are partnering on a two-year project to improve the robot’s software and test its ability to manipulate tools, climb a ladder and perform high-level tasks.

Nasa originally designed Valkyrie several years ago to compete in the disaster-relief robotics contest hosted by the US military’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, but now it’s looking for outside expertise to craft her into a kind of space mechanic. Nasa shipped two other Valkyries to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.

Published in Dawn, May 20th, 2016

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