It should be no surprise that a lot of really awesome robots are being created for the DARPA Robotics Challenge. However, the coolest just might be Valkyrie, designed and developed by a team from NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
Valkyrie, which looks like a cross between a Iron Man and a Power Ranger, stands at a little over 6 feet tall, weighs about 275 pounds, and comes with a series of cameras, sonar, and other sensors spread across its body to help it move around without bumping into things. Valkyrie’s creators want their robot to be easy to use, so it can be operated by someone with limited robotics experience. Its parts are modular, meaning they can be replaced quickly: a new arm can be installed in just a few minutes. The robot has great freedom of movement, particularly in its arms and legs, and includes three-fingered hands with thumbs, allowing it to handle objects like a human. It doesn't require a power tether to operate, and comes with an easily removable battery. Unfortunately, the battery only lasts about an hour, but with new advances with technology like supercapacitors, perhaps the robot’s near future will see longer battery life.
Another difference that Valkyrie boasts is that instead of looking like a steel robot straight out of a Terminator movie, it's soft and more pliable, boasting an exterior of fabric and foam armor. Whereas some metal robots look frightening, Valkyrie appears friendly and approachable. In fact, this soft approach to building robots was deliberate. Nicolaus Radford, team leader for the project, said:
"We take our soft goods very seriously. Our robot is soft. If you brush against it while you’re working, you don’t want to feel this cold, hard metal. You want it to feel natural, like you’re working with another human being. The soft goods, the clothes we put on the robot, give it that feel, that appearance of being more comfortable to be near."
In a few weeks, Valkyrie will compete with other robots, including Boston Dynamics’ ATLAS, in the DARPA Robotics Challenge. There, the robots will perform tasks like walking over rocky surfaces, climbing, driving, and using a variety of tools. The idea is that this next generation of robots will be able to handle jobs that are too dangerous for humans: things like entering disaster zones for recovery efforts or exploring the surface of Mars.
Win or lose, after the trials, the NASA team hopes to keep working on what they call their "superhero robot."
Vie IEEE Spectrum