Science

‘Female’ Humanoid Valkyrie Robot will be the First to Land on Mars

By | May 19, 2016 04:29 AM EDT
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Female humanoid

Val, the Martian robot, as she looks today. (Right) Val as she looked in 2013. Note her "lips."(Photo : NASA)

The honor of being the first extraterrestrial to set foot on Mars in 2035 won't go to a human being after all. Rather, it might go to a female humanoid robot made by human beings, both female and male.

Welcome "Val," or the Valkyrie R5 Space Robot, one of four NASA robots whose future iterations will land on Mars to build the habitats and structures needed by frail human beings to survive on the hostile environment pervading the Red Planet. These females will pave the way for the human colonization of Mars.

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Val is a "she humanoid" ( or a "hermanoid'?) seeing she was named after the mythical Norse female deities that brought the souls of selected warriors slain in battle to Valhalla. If you look at one of her early photos from 2013, you can discern Val's "lips" are clearly female.

Apart from that, Val then and now has a glowing NASA logo embedded in her chest that sort of reminds you of Iron Man. But this "she robot" has a lot of muscles for a female, attributes she'll need to build things using tools or drive a Mars Rover.

Val was introduced by NASA to the world in December 2013 as an entry to the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials. She was originally designed by NASA for disaster-relief and was billed as a "superhero robot." Back then, she stood 1.9 meters tall and weighed 125 kilograms.

The 2016 version of Val has 28 torque-controlled joints and nearly 200 sensors. Engineering students from the University of Massachusetts-Lowell and Northeastern University are involved in a two-year project to improve Val's software and test her ability to manipulate tools, climb a ladder and perform high-level tasks.

The version of Val that does land on Mars will be an entirely different beast altogether. For one, she'll be a lot smarter since she has to use her artificial intelligence (AI) to act on her own and make decisions independent of her human controllers. It takes 20 minutes for commands sent from Earth to reach Mars and that time lag won't do for a humanoid that has to make decisions like a human being.

"It needs to be able to communicate back to Earth, very clearly and concisely, what's going on," said Holly Yanco, a computer science professor who directs UMass-Lowell's robotics center and is an expert on human-robot interactions.

And, let's hope the Val that first lands on Mars will still be a she so she can proudly proclaim, "That's one small step for women; one giant leap for womankind."

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