NASA's Broken R-5 Robot: Not The Droid You Were Looking For


R-5 Robot

On 17 November 2015 NASA issued a press release titled "NASA Awards Two Robots to University Groups for R&D Upgrades" regarding NASA JSC's R-5 robot.

At the time I asked "Is JSC's R5 Droid Worth Fixing?". I sent NASA PAO a simple request asking "How many applications/proposals were submitted? Which schools submitted proposals?" PAO replied "Thanks for reaching out to us. To answer your question, it's not our practice to share information about the number of proposals we received or which proposals were not selected. The two university groups were chosen through a competitive selection process from groups entered in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) Robotics Challenge. The NASA challenge was limited to U.S. university participants in the DARPA Robotics Challenge finals." (see Never Ask NASA a Simple Question)

Gee, all I wanted to know was how many organization submitted proposals and NASA refused to tell me that simple number. What now had me wondering was why NASA was so shy about providing such a simple answer. I did not ask who had applied, simply how many universities had applied. Hmmm ... could it be that only two universities applied? If so, how did it happen that they knew to apply? Did NASA drop hints to potential submitters? Do recall that the R-5 robot has been somewhat of a failure and JSC would just love to pull something successful out of this mess.

R-5 is not the droid you were looking for.

Developed in secrecy by NASA JSC, R-5 competed in the DARPA Robotics Challenge Trials 2013 and tied for dead last. Indeed, the R-5 was not even able to get out of its own way in some portions of the competition. NASA never really explained what this robot was for or why it developed it to have a female shape and form.

After a period of silence, NASA decided in 2015 to haul out their failed R-5 droids out of storage and see if anyone could fix them. Since NASA could not/would not fix them, why not ask if others can help? Not a bad idea. So they asked universities to help them fix the broken robots.

When the two university teams were announced (no doubt highly capable). I wondered how many others had applied and what the interest was in this sort of thing on a national level I was also interested in how hard NASA had worked to actually find the best teams. Mostly I was interested in the number - so I asked PAO. And I got the odd non-response response that PAO provided me.

Not getting an answer I submitted a FOIA request on November 2015. Actually I submitted it twice since the NASA online FOIA submission website was broken that day. Here is the text of my FOIA request:

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