NASA, GM team up to build robotic astronauts

'Robonauts' could perform dangerous space missions and build cars (see video, below)

Instead of sending a regular astronaut to make a dangerous spacewalk outside the International Space Station, NASA might some day soon be able to send a robotic astronaut to do the job instead.

NASA and General Motors (GM) announced late on Wednesday that they are working together to develop and build humanoid robots that can work side-by-side with humans. The idea, according to NASA, is to build robots that can help astronauts during dangerous mission and help GM build cars and automotive plants.

"This cutting-edge robotics technology holds great promise, not only for NASA, but also for the nation," said Doug Cooke, associate administrator for NASA's Exploration Systems Mission Directorate. "I'm very excited about the new opportunities for human and robotic exploration these versatile robots provide across a wide range of applications."

Earlier this week, NASA announced that the White House's proposed budget for the agency includes $3 billion for developing robotics, with a focus on preparing for robotic precursor missions. That means NASA is planning to land robots on the moon, for example, so they can gather information and send back data and video in advance of future human space missions.

NASA's partnership with GM is a separate effort to advance robotics.

The space agency has been a major proponent of using robots in space. Robotic rovers and the Phoenix Lander have been working on the surface of Mars, making significant scientific findings, such as the discovery that Martian soil can support life and that there is water ice on the Red Planet.

Robotic arms on NASA's space shuttles, along with onboard the International Space Station have been used to ferry spacewalking astronauts, inspect heat shields for damage and move and install massive pieces of the station.

Now, NASA and GM are working with engineers from Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston to create what they're calling the Robonaut.

If the project comes to fruition, it would be NASA's second Robonaut.

The original Robonaut, which also was a humanoid machine designed for space travel, was built 10 years ago by the software, robotics and simulation division at the Johnson Space Center, according to NASA. Engineers there worked on the project with teammates from the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA).

The Robonaut 2, which also is known as R2, is designed to be a "faster, more dexterous and more technologically advanced" robot. Engineers said they're hoping it will be able to use its hands to manipulate small parts, while also having exceptional strength.

"Our challenge today is to build machines that can help humans work and explore in space," said Mike Coats, a director at Johnson Space Center. "Working side-by-side with humans, or going where the risks are too great for people, machines like Robonaut will expand our capability for construction and discovery."

The Robonaut2 is being jointly developed by NASA and General Motors to help humans in space and on Earth.

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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