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NASA launches competition to help Robonaut see better

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$10,000 is at stake for whoever can develop the best algorithm.

NASA

NASA wants to help its robot at the International Space Station see better in order to help astronauts with more tasks, so today NASA launched a $10,000 competition to find a fix. The Robonaut 2 was sent up to the ISS in 2011, where it's been assisting astronauts with simple tasks like inventory management and repair work ever since. But years in space have done a number on poor R2, whose vision sensors have been seriously worn down by constant exposure to "high level environmental radiation over time."

Instead of sending R2 a new set of sensors, NASA wants to make the robot work with the machinery it already has. It's the algorithmic version of prescribing this robot a pair of glasses. The agency has opted to swap out the algorithms that R2 currently uses, which allow it to determine 3D representations of the environment around it, and replace them with algorithms that allow the robot to understand the very noisy images its sensors are currently collecting. NASA's open competition will ideally result in giving R2 the ability to detect space tools like an RFID reader (which is used to scan inventory) or EVA handrail (what R2 grabs onto when it does work on the exterior of the space station) with its current low-resolution vision.

The submission closes on March 8th, when NASA will start testing the algorithms. Winners get the purse, but there's no indication if their algorithm will be going into low-Earth orbit.