SA robot geeks take one small step to Mars
Ryan Beech's robots spend their days laying explosive charges and performing other high-risk tasks, but he has set his sights much higher - on programming robots to work on Mars.
Beech is heading one of four South African teams to have entered the Centennial Space Robotics Challenge, a competition run by Nasa aimed at finding the world's best robotics programmers and enlisting their help for potential future missions to the Red Planet.
Entrants must program the pre-built R5 humanoid robot to undertake various missions on the Martian surface.
The 1.8m Robonaut 5 robot, which was previously known as Valkyrie, weighs about 290kg and was initially designed for use during disaster missions.
"It is very complex to program robots to make what we would consider simple movements," said Beech, who is MD and chief roboticist at Ryonic Robotics in Johannesburg.
"Just to pick up a can with a normal robot arm would probably take about a week or two of programming, but that's quite simple because you've only got a fixed arm.
"When you start walking it becomes very complex.
"If you program a joint to do this then you need to program another joint to react to it and react to other forces acting on it, like gravity. Your brain actually does millions of calculations just when you are walking."
Beech said eight engineers were working on the programming.
"We have a strong team and we are confident we can finish in the top five."
For the first qualification round, entrants must program the R5 to push a button and walk through a doorway without falling, as well as correctly identify a series of 10 lights in a row.
The competition itself will require teams to program R5 to do more complex tasks.
"One of the missions will be that the robot needs to walk and fix a solar panel. We need to build some AI [artificial intelligence] into the code so that if it loses signal, it can continue on its own," said Beech.
At this stage of the competition the robot will also need to be able to align a communication dish and find and repair an air leak within a habitat, all within certain time limits.
"Nasa is going to judge who does it the best - who is the quickest, most efficient and so on. But it's a lot more complex than you think. A lot of the teams probably won't even be able to finish the tasks. It's not just a matter of programming it and it goes," said Beech.
Molly Porter, Nasa's public affairs head at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, said that to qualify, teams had to submit a motivation as well as details of their members' backgrounds and credentials.
"When pre-registration for the challenge closed on October 7 we had received 405 entries," Porter said.
She said 46 teams had been approved for the qualification round so far, four of them South African.
Two of these wanted to remain anonymous, while a third had entered under the name TeamNext. Details of TeamNext were not available.
Porter said that while the other three South African contenders had been pre-registered, they had yet to submit their final forms to move into the next qualifying round. The deadline is January 21.
While the competition comes with a prize of $1-million (about R14-million), none of the South African teams will pocket it - only US entrants are eligible for the cash.
When not dreaming of programming space robots, Beech and his team design robots that are primarily used in the industrial sector and mining.
"Our focus is on creating robots that take people out of harm's way. So instead of having a human being lay an explosive charge, we create robots that can be directed to do it."
TV shows like Westworld could make some people believe that AI was going to "spell the beginning of the end of the human race", Beech said.
"What you see in Hollywood is actually something called ASI, or artificial super-intelligence, and that is where something can consciously think for itself," he said.
"Normal AI is where something can do basic tasks autonomously. Ultimately AI is programmed by humans so you can definitely program fail-safes into it."