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NASA palms off blunder-bot Valkyrie for top US universities to fix

Rubbish robots need better software for space

It can put Man on the Moon, but NASA has turned to universities to get its clumsy humanoid robot Valkyrie up to scratch.

The robot, now dubbed R5, competed two years ago in the DARPA robotic challenge, and tied with two other teams for last place after failing to complete any of the specified tasks. Now the agency has awarded two universities $500,000 apiece to see if they can get the R5 working properly.

"Advances in robotics, including human-robotic collaboration, are critical to developing the capabilities required for our journey to Mars," said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate. "We are excited to engage these university research groups to help NASA with this next big step in robotics technology development."

NASA looked at the more successful entrants in DARPA's challenge and selected two – Northeastern University in Boston and MIT in Massachusetts – to perform the upgrades. Each will get two years and up to $500,000 to make sure NASA gets the droids it is looking for.

The agency wants to use the robots as deep space explorers. They could be landed on the Moon, for example, or even sent out to Mars and controlled by a human in orbit around the Red Planet – to eliminate the time lag caused by distance from Earth.

There are already humanoidish robots in space and controlled by NASA. The International Space Station has played host to Robonaut, a legless humanoid robot, since 2011 and used it for mundane tasks like vacuuming and cleaning filters.

Last year the Robonaut got an upgrade, with the addition of a pair of legs, each with seven joints and manipulators for feet. Future plans include adapting the robot so that it can operate outside the station and reduce the need for spacewalks by the human crew.

Whether or not the R5 will get to see the inside of the space station remains to be seen; it all depends on how many improvements the university teams can make. What NASA needs is a Data, but at the moment it's something less useful than Marvin the Paranoid Android. ®

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