Even with all the private sector space rocketry going on, NASA is still cuttin’ the edge and stayin’ relevant. They have experts in their field aiming to reach new heights on a daily basis–been doing so for decades–but now they’re looking for a little help. The agency has teamed up with Freelancer.com to hold a competition to build a new robotic arm for the Astrobee, a free-flying robot that’s operated remotely by astronauts in space or mission control.

Astrobee, the successor to the SPHERES robots in the International Space Station (ISS), is three free-flying robots that have called the ISS home since 2015 are expected to be upgraded in 2017 with Astrobee. NASA plans on the Astrobee being equipped with an arm to interact with small objects on the ISS. Though the agency is fully capable of designing an arm itself, it decided to reach out to the public in hopes of receiving a wider range of ideas.

Phase 1, Robotic Arm Architecture, is complete with 30 freelancers being selected for the next phase of building out the robot arm. The 30 receive $10 and a detailed list of what the agency is looking for. Finalists who meet the requirements will receive $100. Phase 2 sees each of the freelancers break down options for the system architecture, a standard process with multiple ways to break down any given system. NASA wants the freelancers to come up with multiple ways to decompose architecture of a complex system.


During phase 3 NASA will crowdsource the designs of those sub-components based on the specifics created by the thirty freelancers from phase 2 along with those from NASA’s team.

“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.com’s CEO Matt Barrie. “We are now excited to be tapping into the collective ability of over 17 million freelancers to design a robotic arm that could possibly be used with the successor to the SPHERES robot on the International Space Station. It showcases the phenomenal breadth and depth of talent available worldwide on Freelancer.com.”

This isn’t the first time the freelancing site and NASA have worked together. Last year, the two partnered together for a competition to develop a smartwatch application for future ISS astronauts. In 2015, Freelancer.com held 22 contests from NASA. They even reached out to college students for a Mars mission design challenge. Now that the agency is seeking help from the public, more people can brag about working with NASA and be part of putting robots in space. It’s like part of a childhood dream come true.

Freelancer has more design challenges listed on their contest page. If you would like to see more of the technical detail on the development of the Astrobee free-flying robot, you can view the AIAA Paper here.


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