Article by Susan Swarbrick, Columnist and Senior Features Writer for The Herald

PROFESSOR Sethu Vijayakumar is giving a whistle stop tour of the School of Informatics at Edinburgh University. It is a hive of activity with equations scribbled on whiteboards, complex coding being tapped into computers and the constant hum of machinery in the background. In a lab stands a gleaming white robot. At first glance it has an almost cartoonish appearance with a Buzz Lightyear-esque barrel chest and hefty thighs that could rival Sir Chris Hoy in his prime. Squint your eyes and it looks like the hotter, younger brother of C-3PO from Star Wars.

Although that is to perhaps to do frivolous disservice to what is a remarkable feat of ingenious engineering. NASA Valkyrie, one of the most advanced humanoid robots in the world, is worth $2.5m (£2m) and being developed for a mission to Mars. Vijayakumar is heading an Edinburgh-based team as part of a research collaboration with NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Texas. The aim is that Valkyrie, a name taken from Norse mythology, will be able to work alongside astronauts or carry out high-risk tasks in place of humans.

“We’ve had trips to the moon and astronauts inhabit the International Space Station, but when you start thinking about slightly further away planets such as Mars there are additional challenges to consider,” explains Vijayakumar, who is director of the Edinburgh Centre for Robotics. You are no longer able to tele-operate robotic systems. You can’t move a joystick and have it respond in real time because of the time delay and distance from earth. That means building significant autonomy into the platform.”

Autonomous robots are intelligent machines capable of performing without explicit human control. With Valkyrie this refers to the minute-by-minute operation in terms of balance, control and spatial awareness such as avoiding bumping into humans or other robots.It is expected that Valkyrie – which stands 1.8m (5ft 10in) tall and weighs 125kg (19st) – could begin its inaugural Mars missions as early as 2020, although humans won’t follow until at least 2030.

“We had to build in dexterous capabilities such as being able to open doors, grasp objects, recognising things for itself and crawling through narrow spaces,” says Vijayakumar. The real vision for the NASA Valkyrie platform is to do what we call pre-deployment missions to Mars. These un-manned missions would go ahead of the astronauts and set-up habitats. This would allow the astronauts to go there and start their experiments without needing to construct labs and living quarters.

“When the astronauts return to earth, the habitats that are expensive to transport and maintain would be looked after by this flock of humanoid robots.”

Vijayakumar, 46, may be shooting for the stars, but he has both feet planted on terra firma. It is his belief that the Valkyrie platform can have many uses here on earth too.

“Our research aims go beyond looking at space applications,” he says. “We are looking at things such as disaster recovery scenarios, medical rehabilitation and developing exoskeletons for humans.

“The offshoot technology is being used right now. For example, we work with companies like Hitachi and Honda in things such as intelligent warehousing solutions that take out the boring, repetitive work and make it far more efficient and cost effective.

“We are also working with the SMART Centre at the Astley Ainslie Hospital in Edinburgh to develop active prosthesis for people with lower and upper limb amputations.”

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