Bridging the Gap Between Man and Machine

Robonaut B can be attached to a Segway robotic mobility platform to drive on Earth.
Robonaut B's upper body can attach to a Segway-built robotic mobility platform (RMP) in order to drive on Earth. (Image credit: NASA/JSC)

Crew cooperation will always bevital in any manned space exploration mission, even if some of thosecrewmembers aren't human.

With a current mandate to returnhuman explorers to the moon no later than 2020, then push on to Mars, NASAresearchers are developing better robots for the humans who will work alongsidethem on space missions.

"It's just enough time if we're veryaggressive," said IllahNourbakhsh,robotics group lead at NASA's AmesResearchCenterin California, of the2020 deadline. "If we're able to really focus on robot perception andmanipulation, yes, I believe we can have robots build habitats on the moon."

The goal of using robots inconjunction with human astronauts on lunar and planetary missions is to free upthe living members of the crew for exploration and science. The two astronautsaboard the International Space Station (ISS), for example, spent the bulk oftheir time just maintaining the orbital facility, researchers said.

"Humans could end up speeding amassive amount of time just dealing with upkeep [in future missions]," Nourbakhsh said. "Wecan't afford to do that,you'd need more humans to be there, eating food, breathing air."

At Ames Research Center,scientists and engineers are constructing an indoor laboratory designed to mocka manned moon or Mars base, with an inner control room looking out oversimulated lunar surface where humans and robots will cooperate to buildstructures, test equipment and use digging tools. In November, researchers willuse the site to test their system with NASA's wheeled humanoid-like automaton Robonaut B andother robots.

Nourbakhsh and his team hope their tests willlead to space-flying assistants capable of taking instruction from humanastronauts, responding in a human-like manner or even offering suggestions andasking for help when needed. They envision robots that can be both controlledremotely and function autonomously.

"That doesn't mean the robot will beas smart as a human, but it has to be able to ask questions and you have to beable to answer it," Nourbakhshtold

Complex communications

Streamlining communications betweenhumans and robots is a first step towards building a better space team.

"Human teams use very colloquiallanguage," Nourbakhshsaid, adding that air traffic controllers, for example, have their own setvocabulary designed specifically to direct pilots and aircraft. "Robots are notfirst-class citizens and they won't necessarily understand every word."

Ames researchers are focusing onenhancing robot spatial reasoning skills to ease routine tasks, such as handingoff tools and equipment, and allow automatons to understand hand signals andgesture on their own during communication with human astronauts.

Nourbakhsh said his project works in tandemwith other robotics research with similar goals of developing smootherhuman-robot cooperation.

NASA researchers led by Amesscientist Bill Clancey,for example, have developed intelligent computer software called mobileagents to work as a data management bridge between human astronauts, roversand base computers during a moon or planetside extravehicular activity (EVA).

"What we do is give the [roboticassistant] another computer running the agent system," Clancey has told "It brings the robot into the voice network, and it canspeak to astronauts."

Instilling robotic instincts

One of the major challenges facingrobot-human cooperation is safety, project researchers said.

"When you have robots and humansworking side-by-side, there have to be safeguards," Nourbakhsh explained. "It's not just apiece of software anymore."

A spacesuit-clad astronaut workingin the vacuum of space or on the lunar surface is already in a potentiallydangerous situation, and the addition of a robot working in close quarterscould prove disastrous if the automaton is not equipped with measures toprevent injury or accidental damage.

"It's like [Isaac] Asimov's laws,"Nourbakhshsaid. "[The robot] should never endanger the human being."

Lunar and Mars robots must also beable to multitask, not only to adapt to their surroundings but also to increaseutility.

"We need robots that can be teamplayers, and switch to a different role as needed," Nourbakhsh said. "You want a robot thatcan see an object once and recognize it in the future, robots that dig through regolith, and robotsthat can create oxygen on the moon."

Conditioning humans for robots

Changing how humans and robots interactdoes not solely depend on developing better machinery and ever-moresophisticated machinery. Humans will have to adjust, too.

"It will be a challenge for humansto work down at a specific robot's level," Nourbakhsh said. "Humans tend to eitherdecide that the robot is sort of perfect and I can trust it, or the robot isunbelievably stupid and I shouldn't use it."

Built in responses to indicateconfusion and understanding in a robot can act as audio cues for humanoperators to adjust their directions, Nourbakhsh said, adding that developingthe proper mental models for humans to use when addressing robot helpers can bereinforced through field tests.

Tens of small field trials and up tofour major simulations in the Utahdesert will likely be required before the first robotic astronaut partners areready for a space mission, but the automatons won't fully supplant humanexplores, researchers said.

"We as explorers, as scientists, arealways going to want to have situations where we want to scrape that rock, orhand drill that sample," Nourbakhshsaid. "We're not going to always go to a robot, we want that first-handexperience."

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Tariq Malik

Tariq is the Editor-in-Chief of and joined the team in 2001, first as an intern and staff writer, and later as an editor. He covers human spaceflight, exploration and space science, as well as skywatching and entertainment. He became's Managing Editor in 2009 and Editor-in-Chief in 2019. Before joining, Tariq was a staff reporter for The Los Angeles Times covering education and city beats in La Habra, Fullerton and Huntington Beach. In October 2022, Tariq received the Harry Kolcum Award for excellence in space reporting from the National Space Club Florida Committee. He is also an Eagle Scout (yes, he has the Space Exploration merit badge) and went to Space Camp four times as a kid and a fifth time as an adult. He has journalism degrees from the University of Southern California and New York University. You can find Tariq at and as the co-host to the This Week In Space podcast with space historian Rod Pyle on the TWiT network. To see his latest project, you can follow Tariq on Twitter @tariqjmalik.