NASA: Humanoid robot launching into future

Robonaut 2 aboard space shuttle Discovery a major step in human/robot partnerships

With 38 computer processors and working arms and hands, the humanoid robot onboard NASA's space shuttle Discovery is expected to be the centerpiece of a dramatic step forward in the evolution of humans and robots working together in space.

Dubbed Robonaut 2 or R2, the 300-pound robot is stowed aboard Discovery, which is set for a final launch this afternoon.

R2 will accompany six NASA astronauts on an 11-day mission that includes the delivery of supplies and spare parts to the International Space Station. The crew is also slated to undertake scientific experiments during the trip.

"It's difficult to imagine any robot we've shipped in the past being able to some day cook dinner for an astronaut," said Kris Verdeyen, an electrical engineer on NASA's Robonaut project. "Now we can think about something like that. Someday [astronauts] can keep working and say, 'Robonaut, go pop my food in the microwave.'"

Such possibilities are exciting to the engineers charged with getting R2 ready for space flight.

"If you're talking about the evolution of humans and robots working together, these kinds of things now seem possible," added Verdeyen. "It's a big step in the evolution of human/robotic work."

For the better part of the next year, however, the robot will mostly be undergoing tests to make sure the trip to the space station caused it no trouble. The testing period should give the astronauts aboard the station a chance to get used to large, heavy and imposing Robonaut 2.

The robot, which is fitted with velocity and speed controls to help make sure it doesn't injure an astronaut, will have some time to prove itself -- both in terms of its abilities and to ensure it works safely.

"The astronauts and mission controllers need to get comfortable with it," said Verdeyen. "This is the first humanoid robot in space. I imagine it will be pretty scary to begin with. If you've ever watched a movie with a robot, they can be pretty scary.

"It's not a cylon or whatever, but there's going to be a period where we have to, as a team and robot, prove ourselves to the astronauts that we can be useful and we can be trusted. I think that will happen but I don't know how long it will take," he added.

Robonaut 2, which has been in the works for nearly 11 years, wasn't originally conceived for space travel. In fact, Verdeyen said Robonaut 2 was simply a lab experiment until mid-2010. At that point, engineers started working to get the robot ready to both survive a turbulent trip to the space station and operate there over a long period of time.

"We found out that he was going to the space station so it required an overhaul of his electronics," said Verdeyen. "We had to turn around and make it space ready. It was unprecedented."

One of the biggest challenges for NASA engineers was to retrofit all of the robot's electronics to withstand radiation in space.

They also worked to make Robonaut 2 as "smart" as possible.

The robot has a total of 38 Power PC processors, including 36 embedded ones. The embedded chips are running in the machine's joints -- its hands, shoulders, waist, elbows, neck and five large joints in each arm.

Each of the embedded processors control senses and movement in each joint. However, the embedded processors don't communicate with each other; each one communicates with the robot's main computer chip.

NASA also plans on periodically upgrading Robonaut 2 in the coming years.

The first upgrade, according to Verdeyen, is to add a set of legs. Right now, the robot consists of two arms and hands, a torso and a helmeted head. Legs have been built for it but there was no time to get them ready for the Discovery mission.

At this point, the robot will be attached to a pedestal on the space station and it will work in place. By the end of the year, engineers hope to ship one or two leg attachments for installation to the station.

With a pair of legs, the robot could around the station. A single leg, meanwhile, could be easily attached to the robotic arm outside the space station so it can assist astronauts during spacewalks.

Next year, NASA hopes to upgrade the robot's torso, giving it new electronics and computer chips. And at some point, engineers want to add a battery so the robot can move freely about the space station -- as well as outside it -- without being plugged in.

"We took something that was meant to live in a lab on Earth and we upgraded it in a few months to the point that it's sitting on the shuttle waiting for launch," said Verdeyen. "It's a pretty great robot."

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed . Her e-mail address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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