In the robotics sphere, the long-awaited humanoid robots of Hollywood lore never materialized. They’re needlessly top-heavy, their arms’ reach is limited by how long they can be in relation to the torso, and the necessary balance to keep them from falling over was a waste of technology. Therefore, the fully functioning robots that we use every day have always looked anything but human.

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Until now, that is.

Part humanoid, part Star Wars storm trooper in design, NASA’s six-foot-tall Valkyrie robot looks for all the world like a man in a plastic costume. The team behind Valkyrie hopes it will function that way, too.

NASA has teamed up with MIT on the project, tasking the university’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory with the job of writing the software that will power Valkyrie’s missions, namely the anticipated missions to Mars and other exploratory projects.

With the proper software and mission focus, the goal is that Valkyrie (and others like him) can go ahead of humans to the red planet and prepare a more hospitable living environment. Once humans are able to begin these missions, the plan is then for Valkyrie robots to work alongside the astronauts and perform tasks that humans cannot take on.

(I saw this in a Will Smith movie once. Just saying.)

For now, though, the real work of programming the robot will begin. With a two-year grant from NASA, MIT’s team members will write the code that will make a 260-pound vertical robot function and respond to commands. Part of the challenge will be in the fact that it takes as many as nine hours for command signals to leave Earth and reach Mars, which is what has kept our current Mars explorer robots very limited in their assigned tasks. The goal is for Valkyrie to have more autonomous functions so that every move isn’t laboriously transmitted from NASA here on Earth.