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Robonaut to Join Astronauts for Space Mission

Feb 7, 2011 – 6:30 PM
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Lee Speigel

Lee Speigel Contributor

"Warning, warning, Will Robinson!"

Ah, the phrase heard around the galaxy from the classic 1960s television series, "Lost in Space." It was the voice of the boy's mechanical pal trying to keep the young Robinson aware of some sort of approaching threat.

And now, NASA is about to launch its long-awaited robotic companion to astronauts in space: Robonaut 2.

In a unique partnership, NASA and General Motors have come together to develop a new generation of robots for both the automotive and aerospace industries.

"When we found GM as a partner, it was just a beautiful marriage," said Rob Ambrose, chief of the Johnson Space Center's automation, robotics and simulation division in Houston.

"They had a very similar interest: They wanted to have a robot that could handle things that were designed for humans to assemble them, and to do it safely right next to people.

"Our vision is not to replace people. Who needs a robot that can work with people and can be safe if you have no people? From the very beginning, the Robonaut vision has had people there, and the robots are their helpers," Ambrose told AOL News.

While nearly 200 people from 15 countries have traveled to the International Space Station, the Earth-orbit complex will soon have its first non-human member on board.

After 15 years of development, including Robonaut 1 versions, Robonaut 2 will venture into space on the space shuttle Discovery, scheduled to launch on its final mission, STS-133, Feb. 24. R2, as it's affectionately called, will be brought over to the ISS to begin its initial in-space tasks.

In 1996, when Ambrose was given the task of coming up with the overall Robonaut program, he envisioned a humanoid robot.
Robonaut 2 and crew of space shuttle Discovery.
NASA
NASA's Robonaut 2, or R2 for short, will hitch a ride to the International Space Station with the STS-133 space shuttle Discovery crew, clockwise from lower right, Tim Kopra and Nicole Stott, both mission specialists; Eric Boe, pilot; Michael Barratt and Alvin Drew, both mission specialists; and Steve Lindsey, commander.

"We definitely wanted the robot to look like an astronaut in a spacesuit. So if you look at the design, the strongest influence in the aesthetics of the design are the astronaut spacesuits. If you look at it side-by-side with an astronaut, it actually might look a little more human because the spacesuit doesn't have much of a waist or neck. But clearly, we were trying to fit in with the astronauts."

An important factor in making the robot humanoid, right down to the fingertips, was so it would be totally astronaut-friendly.

"The Robonaut vision was a robot that could meet or exceed human dexterity, working with the same interfaces that were designed for astronauts, so that it could be a good assistant. If it can't handle the same objects that an astronaut handles, it's really not going to be a very good assistant," Ambrose explained.

"In the same way that a scrub nurse needs to be able to handle all the same tools that the surgeon handles, you've got to be able to work with the same interfaces. That's all about the upper body, about being able to handle objects and do work."

When R2 is powered on at the ISS, it'll have specific responsibilities.

"We're going to start out relatively simple, by setting it up inside the space station on a fixed pedestal, so there's no lower body. We've got a very nice task board that has all sorts of things that humans work with: switches, buttons, lights, indicators, electrical connectors and fluid couplings -- things that were designed for human hands to interface with," Ambrose said.

"They get progressively harder across the task board, starting with easy ones and then working your way across to the more advanced ones."

Initially, R2 will be positioned on a pedestal because its legs aren't quite ready to be attached and functional. Ambrose and his team are working on a pair of legs that will allow the robot to climb around in a zero-gravity environment.

Ambrose has encouraged astronauts to come up with ideas of things the robot can initially assist with on the space station.

"For 20 years, I've asked children and adults: 'If you had a robot, what would you want it to do for you?' And from children and adults, I got a very consistent answer. Kids say, with a big laugh, 'I want it to do my homework and then I'd like it to clean my room.' Adults always jump right to cleaning, usually saying something about the kitchen or the bathroom.

"And when I asked the astronauts, guess what they wanted it to do? On Saturday mornings, they do a lot of housecleaning, wiping down all the handrails for germs, and they go around vacuuming all the air filters that are in the electrical racks. We could give the crew their Saturday mornings back, to do some science, and that would be a great thing," Ambrose said.

When R2 is fully functional and has its space legs, it will be able to do a variety of tasks that human astronauts can't do as quickly and safely, especially in any possible emergency scenarios that might arise involving spacewalks to repair equipment outside of the ISS.

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Beyond the work that R2 will perform in and around the ISS, NASA has plans to extend its capabilities to include being part of journeys much farther away from Earth.

"By adding wheels to it, R2 could help us scout potential landing sites on Mars or an asteroid and even help to build a habitat there," Ambrose said.

Going into space and learning how to be a functioning member of the astronaut crew is, as NASA puts it, "one small step for a robot and one giant leap for robot-kind."

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