Valkyrie - a Martian servant

Star Wars-inspired humanoid robot ready for Mars by 2025

A humanoid robot resembling Star Wars robot C-3PO has been built by Edinburgh University researchers to go to Mars as a vanguard ahead of a human mission.

The 1.8m tall Valkyrie, weighing approximately 125kg, walks on two legs and has arms with joints and hands that can manipulate objects.

"Valkyrie is a huge scientific undertaking,” said Professor Sethu Vijayakumar, director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics. "At the moment the robot is a pretty basic shell which can walk up a set of three small steps and can reach out and grip something and pass it on to someone. It reacts if you push against it, either swaying or taking a step back.”

The Scottish team has been working on the project together with Nasa, which envisions the robot could travel to Mars ahead of a manned mission planned for the mid-2030s. The robot could essentially prepare a base before the crew’s arrival and subsequently serve as a housemaid or assistant to the astronauts.

"The big challenge will be getting Valkyrie to interact with people; you have to have some pretty adaptable algorithms,” said Professor Vijayakumar. “The dream is to have something that can be a co-worker for astronauts on space missions, for example."

Valkyrie is one of three Nasa-made prototypes which have been given to various researcher teams for further development. The major design driver, the researchers explained, is for the robot to be able to work in environments suitable for people with only minimum additional adjustments. For this reason, the robot was designed to move by walking as a human and not on wheels, which may be simpler from the design perspective but would require installation of ramps.

"Small wheels sometimes get stuck and big wheels are not very manoeuvrable,” said Professor Vijayakumar. “It's not by accident that humans were designed to be bipedal."

One of the major challenges, the researchers said, was to enable the robot to maintain balance while moving on its two legs. The engineers thus developed a sophisticated algorithm that calculates in real time how to shift the robot’s centre of gravity to stay upright.

The robot has two stereoscopic camera eyes and additional cameras on its belly. In addition to that, it has been fitted with force sensors that enable it to react to touch and pressure and a LiDAR in its head to measure distance from objects.

Vijayakumar said the team hopes to further advance the robot’s capabilities in the next years.

In addition to its space service purpose, the robot could be useful in many other scenarios, such as health care or disaster operations.

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