NASA: Robots are our friends

Forget the scary sci-fi movies, we’ll explore space with robot companions

Pepper the robot
Credit: IDG News Service/Tim Hornyak

No matter what images we have from the Borg on Star Trek or the Cylons on Battlestar Galactica, NASA says the future of space exploration is all about human and robotic cooperation.

"In space it will be robots and humans, not robots versus humans", said Rob Ambrose, chief of the Software, Robotics and Simulation Division at NASA's Johnson Space Center. "We have a vision for Mars that definitely includes robots. Apollo did not have the technology to pre-deploy food and supplies for the moon. Everything they took had to fit into that lunar module. If they could have pre-deployed, they might have stayed more than two days."

Ambrose was the opening speaker at today's RoboticBusiness conference in Boston.

The focus of his keynote was building robots that will work hand-in-hand with humans to extend our reach into deep space.

The NASA scientist noted that the space agency has put together a list of what technology it will need for exploration over the next 20 years. Along with life support systems and heavy-lift engines, NASA has made it clear that it also needs robotics if we're going to explore Mars and distant asteroids.

Specifically, Ambrose said NASA needs advances in autonomy, sensing and perception, mobility and manipulation. And one of the greatest robotics needs involves advances in human/robotic interactions.

"Why would humans need robots to explore?" he asked the audience of several hundred people. "We see a larger view of how robots can help us. First they'll act as precursors to human arrival. Exploration of Mars has already started robotically... Imagine if Magellan had a robot to go ahead and explore? They can be caretakers running a facility before humans get there. And between crews, they can be left as caretakers, running the facility and waiting for the next crew to arrive."

Already, the robotic rovers Curiosity and Opportunity have been working on Mars for years, studying the makeup of Martian soil and looking for clues as to whether the Red Planet once could sustain life, even in microbial form.

mars rover NASA JPL

A super-high-resolution image of the Martian surface taken by the Mars Discovery rover, which was designed and built by the NASA Jet Propulsion Lab.

Robots also have been working on the International Space Station for years, with multiple large robotic arms grabbing onto approaching spacecraft, unloading cargo and even giving astronauts rides as they work outside the space station.

This, said Ambrose, is just the beginning.

"We see a number of roles, especially on the space station today, where the crew is overly subscribed," he said. "Any time we can offload from the crew and focus more on their scientific exploration is a huge time savings to us. Robots could do housekeeping and maintenance."

Ambrose showed video of robotic machines that are being used in space or one day might be.

A six-wheeled rover, which has only been tested on Earth so far, could be used to carry astronauts or to serve as a scientific rover on another planet, like Mars, he said. With a lot of torque and an active suspension system, the robotic vehicle is able to easily climb over ridges taller than its own tires and over obstacles.

"It's a beast. It can climb vertical steps and carry more than its own weight on its back," said Ambrose. "No matter what happens, the rover will be able to get the astronauts back to the lander. That's critical, since you're trusting your life to that rover getting you back."

He also discussed Robonaut 2, also known as R2, which is a humanoid robot working on the space station.

"We wanted a robot that could safely work around people," said Ambrose. "If you're going to work side-by-side with a machine that strong, you really have to trust it.... That's what we got in the Robotnaut 2 system. An astronaut is allowed in the space of a robot with nobody watching it. Nobody is on the red button. If you want to stop the robot, you just touch it. It went through the most rigorous safety review of any robotic system I've ever seen."

If the robot senses that it's touched a human, it simply stops. This large, powerful robot has triple redundancies built in to make sure it can work beside humans and not hurt them.

That level of trust is critical to getting humans comfortable with working with robots. And that comfort is key to moving forward with human/robotic cooperation, especially in the dangerous and lonely regions of space.

"We need machines to fly, to go above 20 miles per hour," said Ambrose. "Why not use machines to explore?"

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