View Photo Gallery: The first humanoid robot in space has been there for two years. Robonaut 2 arrived in February 2011 and was unpacked the next month. The robot was developed jointly by NASA and General Motors.

NASA Tournament Lab is launching two new competitions, this time to give Robonaut 2, the humanoid robot aboard the international space station, the gift of improved “sight.” The challenges are the latest offered by the Tournament Lab in conjunction with the open innovation platform TopCoder.

The first competition calls on participants to figure out how to enable Robonaut 2, or R2, to identify buttons and switches on a console fitted with LED lights. The winning entry would be in the form of an algorithm application that works seamlessly with R2’s cameras in different lighting conditions. The second competition will build off the first, calling on competitors to write an algorithm that controls the robot’s motions based on the new “sight” capability.

The first phase of the competition officially launches Saturday, with a formal announcement scheduled for Monday, according to a TopCoder spokesman. The winner of the first phase of the competition will receive $10,000.

“We’re right in the middle of advancing and testing robotics using the space station right now,” said Jason Crusan, Director of NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems division during a call Friday. “This is kind of the right time to onramp other solutions to these image processing problems — other than the ones we have come up with.”

Robonaut 2 was developed and designed to operate as if it were a humanoid, making sight one of its primary tools. The robot currently employs a two-camera view system. “We definitely need the vision piece,” said Crusan.

The technology participants will be called on to create has wider applications beyond R2, said Crusan. And the innovator who submits a solution will not be barred from being able to use the code elsewhere, including making commercial products. But the winning entry is sent back into open source to guarantee that NASA and others can use it.

Past technology to emerge from the Robonaut program, a partnership between NASA and General Motors, has been the K-glove, which GM factory workers use, said Julia Badger, the ISS Applications Lead for the Robonaut 2 project. “That’s an immediate very quick thing that has spun off.”

“It’s a pretty exciting time to see how robots and humans now will be working together,” said Crusan. “A lot of us dreamed about the future of robotics. … We’re given a chance to actually live it.”

Eventually, the goal is to get R2 to take on even more of the mundane tasks currently undertaken by astronauts, freeing up the astronauts to spend more time with hands-on experimentation. The robot is slated to get an additional set of arms, which the team calls “legs.” They should allow R2 to take care of simple cleaning tasks, among other routine responsibilities.

The competitions are part of another shift in the way in which the general public relates with NASA. Rather than having all prototyping, development and construction happen within NASA’s walls or with contractors, the agency is offering a bit of the glory of working on the nation’s space program to anyone with the technological chops. In the wake of the end of the agency’s iconic shuttle program, the competitions provide a new way in which to enjoy NASA.

“Challenges allow people to feel that they are part of their space program,” said Crusan, “It’s not insignificant in the big story of what we’re doing here.”

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