New 'Astronaut' Headed to Space Station: R2, a 300-lb Robot
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

Astronauts on the International Space Station can look forward to the arrival of a new resident later this year — a 300-pound robot named Robonaut 2.

Robonaut 2, or R2 for short, will be the first human-like robot to become a permanent resident at the space station when it arrives on a shuttle mission slated to September. The robot consists of a head and torso with two arms and two hands.

The dexterous robot not only resembles a human, but is specifically designed to operate like one. With the help of advanced control, sensor and vision technologies, R2 is built to use its arms and hands to operate the same tools that station astronauts use.

In the future, the greatest benefits of humanoid robots in space may be as assistants or stand-ins for astronauts during spacewalks or for other tasks that are too difficult or dangerous for humans, NASA scientists said.

"The project exemplifies the promise that a future generation of robots can have both in space and on Earth, not as replacements for humans but as companions that can carry out key supporting roles," said John Olson, director of NASA's Exploration Systems Integration Office at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Robots in space

R2 will launch on space shuttle Discovery as part of the STS-133 mission that is currently planned for September. Once aboard the space station, engineers will monitor how the robot operates in weightlessness.

Throughout its first decade in orbit, the International Space Station has served as a testing ground for human and robotic teamwork for construction, maintenance and science. Construction of the station began in 1998. It is now nearly complete.

"The combined potential of humans and robots is a perfect example of the sum equating more than the parts," Olson said. "It will allow us to go farther and achieve more than we can probably even imagine today."

NASA plans to confine R2 to operations in the station's U.S. Destiny laboratory at first, but future enhancements and modifications may allow the robot to move more freely around the station's interior or outside the complex.

For now, however, R2 is still a prototype and does not have adequate protection needed to exist outside the space station in the extreme temperatures of space.

Testing the robot inside the station will enable researchers to observe how R2 functions in an important intermediate environment. R2 will be tested in microgravity and subjected to the station's radiation and electromagnetic interference environments.

The interior operations will provide performance data, giving scientists an idea of how a robot may work side-by-side with astronauts. As development activities progress on the ground, station crews may be provided with hardware and software to update R2 to enable it to perform new tasks. ?

R2 is currently undergoing extensive testing in preparation for its flight.

The robot was developed by NASA in partnership with General Motors (GM) under a cooperative agreement to develop a robotic assistant that can work alongside humans, whether they are astronauts in space or workers at GM manufacturing plants on Earth.

While R2 is set to assist astronauts at the International Space Station, vibration, vacuum and radiation testing along with other procedures being conducted on R2 at this time also benefit the team at GM. The automaker plans to use technologies from R2 in future advanced vehicle safety systems and manufacturing plant applications.

"The extreme levels of testing R2 has undergone as it prepares to venture to the International Space Station are on par with the validation our vehicles and components go through on the path to production," said Alan Taub, vice president of GM's global research and development.

"The work done by GM and NASA engineers also will help us validate manufacturing technologies that will improve the health and safety of our GM team members at our manufacturing plants throughout the world," Taub stated. "Partnerships between organizations such as GM and NASA help ensure space exploration, road travel and manufacturing can become even safer in the future."

The idea of using dexterous, human-like robots that are capable to using their hands to do intricate work is not new to the aerospace industry.

The original Robonaut designed for space travel was built by the software, robotics and simulation division at Johnson Space Center in Houston, in a collaborative effort with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency 10 years ago.