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NASA selects Northeastern for humanoid robot research

Press Release From: Northeastern University
Posted: Saturday, November 21, 2015

NASA has its sights set on sending astro­nauts to Mars, a space mis­sion for which North­eastern Uni­ver­sity will now play a key role.

On Tuesday, NASA announced that North­eastern and the Mass­a­chu­setts Insti­tute of Tech­nology will per­form advanced research and devel­op­ment work on humanoid robot pro­to­types, a project that could help astro­nauts suc­cess­fully touch down and work on the red planet. NASA envi­sions these robots, one day, proving them­selves worthy in deep space explo­ration, as well.

Under the direc­tion of prin­cipal inves­ti­gator Taskin Padir, an asso­ciate pro­fessor in the Depart­ment of Elec­trical and Com­puter Engi­neering, the North­eastern team will work to advance the autonomy of the Humanoid Robot R5. MIT will receive and work on a sep­a­rate robot.

“We were very pleased to hear that our team was selected and we are looking for­ward to col­lab­o­rating with NASA and MIT,” Padir said, an expert in mod­eling and con­trol of robotic systems.

The North­eastern team will work on the robot’s ability to com­plete mission-​​specific tasks such as exiting an air­lock, using a ladder to reach Mars’ sur­face, repairing equip­ment, and col­lecting rock from the planet.

Padir will col­lab­o­rate with Robert Platt, an assis­tant pro­fessor in the Col­lege of Com­puter and Infor­ma­tion Sci­ence and an expert in machine learning and robot manipulation.

This oppor­tu­nity is the latest example of the university’s inter­dis­ci­pli­nary approach to use-​​inspired research, where mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary teams focus on solving the greatest chal­lenges in health, secu­rity, and sustainability.

The robot is slated to arrive early next year, and will be housed at the New Eng­land Robotics Val­i­da­tion and Exper­i­men­ta­tion Center at the Uni­ver­sity of Mass­a­chu­setts Lowell. Holly Yanco, a pro­fessor of com­puter sci­ence at UMass Lowell, is also part of the team.

“This is a unique oppor­tu­nity for the robotics com­mu­nity,” Padir noted. “Hosting R5 at the NERVE Center, the largest indoor robot test facility in New Eng­land, will make this cutting-​​edge humanoid robot acces­sible to many robotics researchers. It also gives our team both at North­eastern and UMass Lowell an oppor­tu­nity to advance the research on humanoids.”

According to NASA’s announce­ment, these robots could be sent to Mars or into other extreme space envi­ron­ments to per­form duties before humans arrive or work along­side human crews.

North­eastern was chosen after a rig­orous selec­tion process, which included par­tic­i­pating in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Robotics Challenge.

The team will receive up to $250,000 a year for two years and have access to onsite and vir­tual tech­nical sup­port from NASA.

As prin­cipal inves­ti­gator, Padir will serve as a crit­ical partner in NASA’s upcoming Space Robotics Chal­lenge, where the R5 robots will com­pete in a phys­ical competition.

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