SA robotics firm Ryonic in push for NASA challenge

NASA space robot ryonic

You don’t often hear about South African involvement in space-based endeavours, but local firm Ryonic Robotics is hoping to get in on the fun.

The company has entered the qualification round of NASA’s Space Robotics Challenge (part of the Centennial Challenges Programme), which ultimately seeks to improve the abilities of humanoid robots in space and Mars.

The contest will eventually see finalists attempting to program a virtual robot, “stationed” on Mars, to complete a series of tasks. This is made tougher by the implementation of a communications delay, similar to the one between Earth and the Red Planet.

Ryonic Robotics is hoping to make it into the finals of the programme, which will focus on Mars

Ryan Beech, managing director and chief roboticist at Ryonic, told Memeburn that their pace of development makes them stand out from the crowd. The company was founded in 2014 and Beech says they’re already exporting robots.

The firm has no experience of working in space, but cites its RMIS inspection crawler as its biggest achievement to date.

“We are currently very excited as the (inspection crawler) technology is being adapted internationally for pipeline inspections and other data acquisition applications in dangerous and confined spaces,” Beech explained.

The managing director says that robots excel in dangerous environments and when it comes to repetitive/labour-intensive tasks. Are there any drawbacks to having robots in space then?

“Almost none. Space is a dangerous place and it makes sense for human to use robots for initial exploration. The Mars Curiosity Rover is a great example of a robot that has spent many years on Mars first exploring the environment before we send humans. Asteroid mining is also going to happen in the next 20-30 years and robots are ideal for these harsh environments.”

Encouraging robotics in South Africa

Beech also explained that they were trying to encourage more people to study in this field and develop a vibrant scene in South Africa.

“We are trying to create awareness and get young people to study this exciting field as it is definitely the future. This competition will generate a lot of useful exposure and hopefully inspire many youngsters to pursue robotics as a career,” the roboticist continued.

“Our local robotics industry is basically non-existent and this is very worrying considering where the world is moving.”

Concerns about job losses due to robotics

The one question that seems to pop up constantly is whether more robots equals more jobs being shed. But Beech says that their aim is to create more jobs.

Beech says that the move to a robotic and technological workforce is “inevitable”, creating “negative perceptions” around robotic and automated industries.

“However, whilst the fear of job losses is a valid concern, particularly in developing countries with high unemployment rates, the potential negative impact can be managed if countries are able to adapt to create these technologies locally.”

The roboticist says that as a result, their goal was to “create more jobs by stimulating the development of technology locally as we migrate to a more autonomous world”.

The actual challenge

Qualifying for the Space Robotics Challenge takes place from 24 October to 14 January, with finalists being announced at the end of January. As for the qualification criteria?

“Registered teams must qualify for the SRC by demonstrating a simple technological advancement,” read an excerpt from the website.

Only then will they move on to the virtual robot simulation, with the final competition taking place from 12 to 16 June 2017.

The simulation will see teams program a virtual robot to complete a series of tasks, namely fixing a solar array, repairing a habitat leak and aligning communications equipment. The simulated robot in question is similar to NASA’s R5 robot.

The Space Robotics Challenge presents a stiff challenge for Ryonic Robotics and other teams

What about prizes though? Well, teams who qualify for the finals will each receive US$15 000, for starters. But the final event ups the ante drastically…

The winning team will rake in US$125 000, while second and third place teams net US$100 000 and US$50 000 respectively. However, the fourth-placed team will also receive a cash prize, totalling US$25 000.

“In addition to the above awards, based on final scoring, up to six teams are also eligible for bonus awards of US$50 000 each for successfully completing every task within one run.  Bonus awards are not limited to the top four teams,” the website added.

Featured image: NASA file photo

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