NASA Awards R5 Valkyrie Robots to MIT and Northeastern


By Evan Ackerman


At the DARPA Robotics Challenge Finals this summer, we heard from NASA that they were preparing to send two Valkyrie robots to U.S. universities “for active research of high-level humanoid behaviors” through a competitive selection process. Yesterday, NASA announced the winners: Russ Tedrake’s lab at MIT, and a group led by Taskin Padir, who just moved to Northeastern University from WPI.


Here’s where NASA is coming from on this; note that they refer to Valkyrie as “R5” even though “Valkyrie” is a way cooler name:

NASA is interested in humanoid robots because they can help or even take the place of astronauts working in extreme space environments. Robots, like NASA’s R5, could be used in future NASA missions either as precursor robots performing mission tasks before humans arrive or as human-assistive robots actively collaborating with the human crew. R5 initially was designed to complete disaster-relief maneuvers, however, its main goal is to prove itself worthy of even trickier terrain — deep space exploration.

The robotics labs at MIT and Northeastern will both get their very ownsuperhero robot on loan, plus tech support from NASA and $250,000 a year for two years for robot support and pizza parties. Here are the two proposals that were selected, representing the entirety of the information that NASA was willing to share with us about what the R5 robots are going to be, you know, doing:

  • Robust Autonomy for Extreme Space Environments: Hosting R5 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led by principal investigator Russ Tedrake
  • Accessible Testing on Humanoid-Robot-R5 and Evaluation of NASA Administered (ATHENA) Space Robotics Challenge—Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, led by principal investigator Taskin Padir

For a little more detail, we spoke briefly with Russ Tedrake at MIT about what his plans are for Valkyrie. Along with two other MIT CSAIL robotics professors (Leslie Kaelbling and Tomas Lozano-Perez) and (we assume) a big pile of students and postdocs, Tedrake will be developing the kind of high-level autonomy algorithms that were only partly necessary for the DARPA Robotics Challenge. The DRC was very highly structured, and the robots were allowed to focus more on not falling over than on having to make any kind of decision based on their ability to reason. For long term useful autonomy, however, robots will be far more valuable if they can determine on their own whether they should turn a valve, or where to cut into a wall, or which switch to toggle. The low-level motion primitives that were developed for the ATLAS robots at the DRC were a very important building block toward this goal, but Tedrake is now looking forward to “our chance to finish what we’ve started.”