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NASA: Humanoid robot launching into future

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

February 24, 2011 03:46 PM ET

Computerworld - 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.



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