NASA wants you to design its next robotic arm

The space agency is turning to Freelancer.com to crowdsource schematics for a free-flying robot. Do your ideas have the right stuff?
Written by Greg Nichols, Contributing Writer

An artist's rendering of the Astrobee

The International Space Station (ISS) is slated to get a new robot, and you have a chance to help design it.

NASA's Center of Excellence for Collaborative Innovation (CoECI) has teamed up with work-for-hire site Freelancer.com on the Astrobee, a free-flying robot currently under development. The project will involve designing concepts for a robotic arm for the Astrobee. NASA and Freelancer will be crowdsourcing designs from the site's 17 million freelancers around the world.

The Astrobee certainly isn't the first bot NASA has sent to the ISS. In 2011 the space agency launched the very cool-looking Robonaut 2 to assist crew with particularly dangerous tasks. This time around NASA's engineers are cooking up something a little less human-like.

The Astrobee will look like a ruggedized boombox. The little free-flying robot will have the capability to move around inside the space station on its own to perform a number of routine or repetitive tasks, such as surveys and system inspections, serving as a mobile sensor platform, or even as a mobile camera to film activities or special events. Translation: It just might be the most expensive selfie device ever concocted.

One of the most important components of the bot will be a small, lightweight articulated arm, which will be used for perching and interacting with small objects. NASA is working on its own design, but it has decided to reach out to the crowd to come up with alternative concepts.

It's not NASA's first time teaming up with Freelancer. In a previous collaboration, NASA crowdsourced the design of a Smartwatch app, which might be used by astronauts down the road. Over a thousand graphic, engineering and industrial designers from all over the world took part in the challenge.


Robonaut 2

NASA has also crowdsourced ideas for Robonaut 2.

"NASA and Freelancer.com achieved great success with crowdsourcing on Freelancer.com to build CAD models to help train the image recognition system of the Robonaut 2 robotic astronaut," says Freelancer CEO Matt Barrie. "We are now excited to be tapping into the collective ability of our freelancers to design a robotic arm that could be used on the International Space Station."

The robotic arm project will be rolled out in three phases over the next few months:

Phase 1, which began on January 14, is a registration process that will allow NASA to select the top 30 freelancers for the task. Entry details can be found here.

Ultimately NASA hopes to select one design, which it may incorporate on the Astrobee.

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