New Robot Could Aid Astronauts in Space
Robonaut2 surpasses previous dexterous humanoid robots in strength, yet it is safe enough to work side-by-side with humans. It is able to lift, not just hold, this 20-pound weight (about four times heavier than what other dexterous robots can handle) both near and away from its body.
Credit: NASA

The next generation of robot astronauts is on its way, and they are even faster, stronger and more dexterous than before.

NASA and General Motors have unveiled Robonaut 2, a more advanced version of the original Robonaut built 10 years ago in a partnership between NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency. Its nickname, "R2," bears a striking resemblance to Star Wars' R2D2 ? "a similarity we've noticed," said Ron Diftler, NASA's Robonaut project manager.

This new humanoid machine, developed and built with the help of engineers from Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston, is more dexterous, with a four-jointed thumb as opposed to three, enabling it to do work beyond the scope of prior humanoid machines. "The thumb is obviously important, helping make us the dominant species on the planet," Diftler said. The robot's thumb "has roughly the order of flexibility of an astronaut in a spacesuit glove."

R2 is also four times faster than the original Robonaut, capable of moving roughly 4.5 mph. It is stronger as well, able to lift 20 pounds of weight, about four times what other dexterous robots can handle.

To make it work safely alongside people, "we put in more force sensors both on a joint and arm level, so if it comes into contact with astronauts unexpectedly, it can stop or completely shut down, depending on the force level it sees," Diftler explained. The roughly 300-pound robot, whose proportions are about that of a large human's, is also covered in soft fabric, to help cushion it in case it comes into contact with people and cover it so that it doesn't accidentally rip spacesuits.

These advances could help R2 manipulate flexible materials. The idea is to relieve the astronaut crews of the burden of tasks such as setting up thermal blankets or fetching tools in place. "Our goal is to have astronauts do more science and exploration," Diftler said.

The researchers developed the robot as a humanoid "because when your main objective is to help astronauts, you want the robots to work with the same tools and interfaces that humans do, which lends itself to machines like human hands, with a similar reach when it comes to arms," Diftler explained. "Continuing along that track, you end up with a human robot."

R2 can be tele-operated, "but the method we propose for operating it is what we call supervised autonomy, where from the ground, the robot can be given a sequence of commands, and after it completes each section of the command, activity can be verified from the ground's camera view before it moves on to the next part," Diftler said. "That way you can work around the time delay between Earth and space, which is a big problem with tele-operation." The astronauts can also operate R2 from inside their spacecraft if necessary.

NASA and GM began working together on R2 three years ago through a Space Act Agreement, with GM contributing an undisclosed amount of funding to the research, producing one robot for GM and another for NASA. NASA and GM have long been partners, starting in the 1960s with the development of the navigation systems for the Apollo missions. GM also played a vital role in the development of the Lunar Rover Vehicle, the first vehicle to be used on the moon.

These robots hold promise on Earth as well as in space ? they can help to build cars and assist astronauts during hazardous missions, too, the scientists say.

"For GM, this is about safer cars and safer plants," said Alan Taub, GM's vice president for global research and development. "When it comes to future vehicles, the advancements in controls, sensors and vision technology can be used to develop advanced vehicle safety systems. The partnership's vision is to explore advanced robots working together in harmony with people, building better, higher quality vehicles in a safer, more competitive manufacturing environment."

"This cutting-edge robotics technology holds great promise, not only for NASA, but also for the nation," said Doug Cooke, associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Given the uncertainty currently surrounding the status of NASA's human spaceflight program, it remains unknown when R2 might see use. R1 was never approved to go on a space mission. "My hope is to get R2 in space as soon as possible," Diftler said.