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One giant leap for robots: NASA opens Space Robotics Challenge registration

The first astronaut to set foot on Mars may be greeted by a robot. At least that’s NASA’s plan with its Space Robotics Challenge, a $1 million prize competition that asks roboticists from around the world to develop astronautic robots. Registration for the challenge opened to the public this week and runs until September 16.

Through the Space Robotics Challenge, NASA hopes to advance robotic capabilities so that machines can arrive at Mars prior to crewed missions, selecting landing sites, constructing habitats, and even commencing early scientific research.

The particular focus is on dexterity, according to NASA officials, in an effort to make the robots perform functions previously restricted to humans.

Robonaut5
NASA

“Precise and dexterous robotics, able to work with a communications delay, could be used in spaceflight and ground missions to Mars and elsewhere for hazardous and complicated tasks, which will be crucial to support our astronauts,” Monsi Roman, program manager of NASA’s Centennial Challenges, said in a press release. “NASA and our partners are confident the public will rise to this challenge, and are excited to see what innovative technologies will be produced.”

Competitors are tasked with developing a virtual robot that’s modeled off of NASA’s Robonaut 5 (R5) and able to respond to a virtual scenario in which a dust storm has damaged a Martian habitat. In the aftermath of the storm, the robot is expected to realign a communications dish, repair solar panels, and repair a leak in the Martian habitat. Scoring is based on completion of these main tasks and a series of subtasks. Prizes, which range from $25,000 to $125,000, are guaranteed to the top four contenders.

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But NASA’s isn’t preoccupied with outer space — the agency thinks this challenge will help advance robotics in ways that will benefit humanity here on Earth as well.

The competition itself will run from June 13-16, 2017. Winners will be determined by June 30.