'R2' humanoid robot to blast off with space shuttle launch
Space shuttle launch on Thursday will include a robotic passenger dexterously designed to make astronauts' lives easier.
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In September 2006, a team from four NASA centers put Centaur through its paces near Meteor Crater, Ariz. The goal was to see how well a spacesuited astronaut could work with several robots, from Centaur to more-familiar rovers.Skip to next paragraph
In Pictures Space photos of the day: Space Shuttle Discovery
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The four-wheeled wonder had sufficient dexterity to pick up small rocks, transfer sample boxes from one vehicle to another, and even clip safety tethers to stanchions to secure another robot working on a slope.
"Surprisingly, there's a very large overlap between the capability requirements" each partner sought, says Marty Linn, a principal robotics engineer at GM and the automaker's point man on the project.
For instance, both want robots that can handle flexible objects in a humanlike way. For GM, those objects might be auto carpeting or weatherstripping. For NASA, it's soft goods like space blankets, which provide thermal protection for components on the station's exterior.
That demands subtle changes to the amount of force a robot's arms, hands, and fingers apply. It requires sophisticated sensors and electronics to monitor that force and feed the information back to motors and actuators controlling a hand's grip. And it requires hands with as wide a range of motions as the human hand exhibits.
These actions needed to take place at humanlike speeds and with humanlike sensing. Oh, yes, and all of the hardware, including the electronics controlling it, needs to be packaged in human-sized features. That, Mr. Linn says, presented one of the biggest challenges.
The end result, he says, "is one of the most advanced packages you'll ever be able to find."
It's also a dense package. R2 is only a torso with hands, arms, and head. But at 300 pounds, it weighs as much as a pro football nose tackle. With that kind of mass, fine motor skills and subtle control are a must if a robot is to work safely beside humans in microgravity or along an assembly line, Linn explains.
Initially, space-station astronauts will mount R2 on a stand that can be fixed to foot restraints on the space station's floors.
After the initial checkout, engineers have designed a set of tasks for R2 to perform that mimic those the crew faces inside and outside the station.
"Once the robot earns its stripes, we're thinking of handing over some of the mundane tasks the crew currently has to do, things like vacuuming air filters," NASA's Diftler says. Eventually, he envisions improvements to R2, including a single "leg," and giving it mobility – for instance, using handholds inside the station and outside to move in monkey-bar fashion to its next work location.
And if, perish the thought, R2 fails to live up to expectations, even with upgrades? NASA has no plans to bring it back, Diftler says.
Perhaps a cosmic "walk the plank" would be in order?
IN PICTURES: NASA's Space Shuttle