Astronauts on board the International Space Station don’t have a lot of free time, which means the last thing they want to do is expend energy on mundane chores like vacuuming. Enter Robonaut 2, the first humanoid robot in space that takes on these everyday tasks.
R2, which has been on the ISS since 2011, has a mission: clean handrails, vacuum air filters and take air-flow measurements. The problem is it doesn’t yet have the ability to learn and complete the work. So NASA is looking for someone to teach the bot. The Robonaut Challenge calls on contestants to write algorithms that allow R2 to interact with a training dashboard the space agency built.
“R2 is meant to contribute back to the ISS by freeing the astronauts up to do more scientific research and the more difficult tasks,” Allison Thackston of the Robonaut team tells Mashable via email. “We measure our cost savings in crew hours saved, which translates into more important scientific and engineering research being done.”
Competitors will start by writing code that enables R2 to “see” and recognize the state and location of LED-illuminated buttons and switches on the dashboard. Building on that successful algorithm, contestants will write control software that manipulates the objects that Robonaut can recognize and locate.
The contest started on Monday morning and will run for three weeks. However, the Robonaut team says it won’t take long for solutions to start trickling in.
“While there is no requirement for contestants to submit their solutions early, we usually begin seeing the first solutions within a week of launch,” says Robonaut’s Julia Badger.
NASA may eventually use the Robonaut 2 to prepare or clean up work sites for astronauts outside the ISS. However, as sophisticated as the technology is, R2 won’t likely replace humans in space.
“Robotics technology has a long way to go,” says Badger. “But having a robotic assistant is a great way to push that technology while still having the benefit of human interaction and supervisory control.”
NASA is hosting its Robonaut Challenge with TopCoder, the world’s largest open platform for the computer science community.