It's not every day that the world's most prominent space agency puts out a call for ideas on how to design robots, so when it does, it's probably worth paying attention.
NASA is crowdsourcing design ideas for its free-flying Astrobee robot, which is currently under development. Expected to be launched into space next year, the cube-shaped Astrobee will float around the International Space Station (ISS), performing routine tasks and helping astronauts in day-to-day operations.
By this point, the majority of development work on the Astrobee has already been completed, but NASA is seeking design concepts for a small, lightweight robotic arm for the unit, to be used for perching and interacting with small objects on the ISS.
To get a sense of what the arm will need to do, it's worth taking a look at NASA's information page on the Astrobee.
The robot, measuring approximately 30 centimetres in each dimension, is designed to help astronauts develop and test technologies for use in zero-gravity environments. It will also give flight controllers in Houston additional eyes and ears in orbit, and help the ISS crew perform routine chores:
"For the astronauts, Astrobee is an important step in freeing up their research time by leaving the free-flyer to perform mundane chores. For example, with tens of thousands of tools and parts to keep track of, Astrobee can cruise the ISS to continually verify the location of items with its RFID scanner, instead of requiring astronauts to spend their time doing this by hand.
Astrobee can also monitor environmental conditions such as air quality or sound levels, which can get very loud on the ISS, again freeing up the astronauts' time while keeping them healthy."
Astrobee isn't the first floating robot in NASA service. The ISS already features three flying robots called SPHERES, but the Astrobee will bring significantly advanced capabilities, in part due to the robotic arm that you've now got a shot at designing.
To enter the competition, head here. There are a number of stages involved, and you'll need to register with Freelancer, the site hosting the contest, in order to take part. But surely that's not too high a price to pay to help create an actual space robot? And after all, NASA needs you.
"NASA has grown in the multiple ways we engage the crowd to provide solutions to challenges we face when advancing complex space systems," said Jason Crusan, NASA's director of Advanced Exploration Systems. "This challenge continues that expansion and will help to create novel designs but also allow us to learn about sophisticated system design through the use of open innovation. We continue to explore the many ways to engage external innovators."
And if designing robot arms isn't quite cool enough for you, NASA's got an even more adventurous contest: a recruitment drive for astronauts who will travel to Mars. It doesn't get any more 'out there' than this. Read the details here.