It looks like an astronaut. It acts like an astronaut. And here, on January 2, it operates the valves on a task board like an astronaut.
Robonaut 2 is the second iteration of NASA’s attempts to put a human-like robot in space, and he is fast approaching his second anniversary aboard the International Space Station. In this case he is taking directions from a crew on Earth to operate a slew of valves in the Destiny Laboratory, but he can also be controlled by his fellow astronauts in space or complete certain tasks all on his own.
For NASA, this was a week of launches and lack of launches. The space shuttle Discovery successfully blasted off yesterday on its final mission, but NASA’s climate-watching Glory satellite, which was scheduled to launch on Wednesday, is still stuck on the ground.
With an estimated 40,000 viewers at the Kennedy Space Center, Discovery launched at 4:53:24 p.m. ET on Thursday. Its crew of six is bound for the International Space Station, after four months of delay due to fuel tank repairs.
“Discovery now making one last reach for the stars,” the Mission Control commentator said once the shuttle cleared the launch tower. [CBS News]
Also on board is the first ever space-bound humanoid robot: Robonaut 2, or R2. This robot resembles a human from the waist up, and may eventually take on tedious chores and complete station repairs that are too dangerous for humans. At it entered space the robot tweeted (via its earthly handlers): “I’m in space! HELLO UNIVERSE!!!”
When the space shuttle Discovery launches on Thursday (weather and technology permitting), it will be ferrying an unusual passenger to the International Space Station: Robonaut 2. This humanoid robot was designed by NASA and General Motors to work alongside astronauts on the space station, and could eventually take over some tedious or dangerous tasks.
Human beings who dream of becoming astronauts acquire things like advanced science degrees or the ability to fly jet planes in hopes of catching NASA’s eye and being chosen as astronaut candidates. If they do become candidates, there’s still scads of training before they can take a flight up to the ISS. But how does a robot qualify for and prepare for that trip to orbit? DISCOVER spoke with Marty Linn, General Motor’s principal engineer of robotics, to find out.
Physical Fitness: Human astronauts have to pass the NASA long-duration space flight physical to prove that they’re healthy, fit, and strong enough for astronaut duties. Robonaut 2 has to be pretty strong, too: Here on Earth, he proved that he can do arm curls with 20-pound free weights. “The limitation is grasp strength,” says Linn. “The weak link is how strong the fingers are.” The robot didn’t have to spend any time on the treadmill, though, because this model doesn’t have lower limbs—it’s simply a torso with arms and a head.
Intelligence: To be honest, R2 (as its buddies call it) isn’t that bright—it can’t make independent decisions. NASA’s top priority for the experimental bot is guaranteeing that it won’t pose a threat to the astronauts or the space station, so for now R2 will be under the strict control of astronauts and ground crew. R2 “isn’t going to go berserk,” Linn stresses, but it’s still nice to have an off switch. He also explains that the robot’s actions can be programmed joint by joint, or it can be controlled by a tele-ops system, in which an astronaut dons the tele-ops gear and puts the robot through its paces by moving her own arms or head.
Vision: NASA has always paid careful attention to the eyesight of its astronaut candidates, and only recently decided that people who have gotten laser surgery to correct their vision can still be considered for the job. R2’s vision is top-notch. It’s equipped with high-resolution digital cameras, can detect motion and distinct objects, and has a 3D mapping tool to allow it to determine where objects are in space. It also has lower resolution cameras for tele-operation, Linn explains, which “allow the operator to see through the eyes of the robot.”
Have robots got the right stuff? We’ll soon find out, as NASA has announced that one of the last flights of the space shuttle will carry a humanoid robot, Robonaut 2, up to the International Space Station.
The two-armed ‘bot is the result of a venture by NASA and General Motors, and will help the researchers involved identify in what ways a robot could be a help to human explorers in space. Before it gets to go on its first space walk, however, it’ll be monitored to see how well it deals with weightlessness [DVICE].
The robot isn’t much more than 300 pounds of torso, head, and arms, with wheels for locomotion rather than humanoid legs. But NASA hopes it could one day work alongside human astronauts, perhaps helping them during spacewalks. While we’ve blasted plenty of unmanned explorers into space, this will be first largely humanoid robot to venture beyond our home planet.
Automaker General Motors and NASA share a long history; it goes back to GM supplying the lunar rover used during the later Apollo missions in the early 1970s [MSNBC]. In their latest partnership, GM and NASA have created the Robonaut 2–a humanoid robot that can be used both on Earth and in space. The collaboration comes a time when the Obama administration has called for NASA to focus more on commercial spaceflight and on collaboration with private industry [CNET].
Robonaut 2, which looks a bit like a sleeker version of R2-D2, is a step up from the first iteration made 10 years ago by NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA). That robonaut was intended to be used mostly for space purposes. But the new version, R2, would be equally at home on the International Space Station or on a car assembly line in Detroit.