As space station marks 15th anniversary, robotic advances hit home (With video)

With 15 years of human presence on the station, a look at the importance of robotics to the mission

space station2

The International Space Station hit a significant milestone this week -- 15 years of humans living and working onboard the orbiter.

The space station has been a working test bed for scientific research, leading to advances in robotics, communications, water and air purification and even medical care.

"For 15 years, humanity's reach has extended beyond Earth's atmosphere," wrote NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a statement on the anniversary. "Since 2000, human beings have been living continuously aboard the space station, where they have been working off-the-Earth for the benefit of Earth, advancing scientific knowledge, demonstrating new technologies, and making research breakthroughs that will enable long-duration human and robotic exploration into deep space."

The first crew docked at the space station, which orbits 249 miles above the Earth at a speed of about 17,000 mph, on Nov. 2, 2000.

Since then, more than 220 people from 17 countries have lived on the station. And in that time, more than 1,760 research investigations from scientists in 83 countries have been conducted, according to NASA.

The scientific work done on the space station has been highly productive.

According to the space agency, there have been more than 1,200 published scientific results based on experiments conducted on the space station.

"The International Space Station is a unique laboratory that has enabled groundbreaking research in the life and physical sciences and has provided a test bed for the technologies that will allow NASA to once again send astronauts beyond Earth's orbit," said Dr. John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, in a statement. "The international partnership that built and maintains the station is a shining example, moreover, of what humanity can accomplish when we work together in peace."

Whether astronauts are creating 3D-printed objects onboard the orbiting station, holding conversations with a robot, finding new ways to grow food in space or testing holographic glasses , they are working on science that will help them one day travel to distant asteroids and planets, as well as help humans living on Earth.


While there has been a vast amount of scientific work done on the space station, robotics have been a key area of research and work. Several robots are being used on the space station.

Robotics on the space station NASA

NASA worked with GM to take technology used in a humanoid robot working on the space station to build a robotic glove.

A humanoid robot, dubbed Robonaut 2, has been tested taking on dull, menial and dirty jobs like cleaning air filters and railings, though scientists hope it will one day take on spacewalks, relieving astronauts from the dangerous job.

Robonaut 2 hasn't been useful just on the station.

NASA teamed up with General Motors several years ago to take some of the technology used in the humanoid robot to create a robotic glove, known as Robo-Glove.

The mechanized glove is designed to enable astronauts, or workers in an auto manufacturing facility, do their jobs more quickly and efficiently, while also reducing any stress from doing repetitive tasks.

"With technology inside the glove, you don't use your own grip strength. You would use robotic grip strength," said Dan Huot, a NASA spokesperson. "It alleviates stress fractures or other problems from repetitive jobs."

Other robots at work

There's also a Japanese-built robot that stands not quite 14 inches tall but can hold basic conversations with people. Called Kirobo, and sent to the space station in 2013, it was the focus on an experiment to see if a robot could be used to keep astronauts company in space and to serve as a communication device between astronauts and ground control.

Just last week, Toyota reported that the work the company's engineers did on Kirobo has led them to build Kirobo Mini, a robot designed to sit inside an automobile to keep drivers company and keep them alert while they're driving.

Another robot working on the space station isn't cute and talkative but it has proven useful both in space and on the ground.

Canadarm2, one of the station's robotic arms and built by the Canadian Space Agency, works outside of the space station, moving objects and unloading visiting cargo ships.

Scientists used some of the same technology that went inside the giant robotic arm to create neuroArm, the first robot capable of performing surgery inside an MRI machine.

Doctors needed to be able to perform surgeries inside an MRI machine so they needed a robotic arm that is precise, dexterous and free of any magnetic materials. It also needed a sense of touch, much like Canadarm2 has.

They got neuroArm.

According to NASA's Huot, the robotic arm has performed 35 surgeries that otherwise would have been considered inoperable.

Off to Mars

All this robotics work onboard the space station also is helping move us closer to being able to travel deeper into space, one day exploring asteroids and even setting up a human habitat on Mars.

For years now, NASA scientists have said the robots working on the station, as well as the robots already working on Mars, will be the predecessors to the machines that get astronauts to Mars, setting up shelters, finding water on the Martian surface and turning it into drinkable water, and making fuel for astronauts to use to get back to Earth.

"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, at a robotics conference in 2014. "We have a vision for Mars that definitely includes robots."

Advances in robotic autonomy, mobility, sensing, communication and human-robot interaction will be critical.

A lot of that work is being done on the space station, which serves as a stepping stone for humans to venture further from home and deeper into space.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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