Robonaut Project lead, Robotics Systems Technology Branch, National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Johnson Space Center, Houston..
Best known for: Diftler leads the team from NASA and General Motors that developed the first humanoid robot sent into space, a revolutionary machine with a unique human-like hand that can take over simple, repetitive or dangerous tasks now performed by astronauts.
The Robonaut2, known as R2, was transported to the international space station in February 2011 and is undergoing testing. R2 can work safely with people, a huge advance in robotics. It can wiggle its fingers, lift weights, feel contact forces and shake hands with people. This dexterity allowed R2 to show off in space, signing “Hello World” in American Sign Language.
With only six crew members on the space station, R2 can be an extra body that will allow crew members more time to conduct vital scientific research. Diftler used his engineering and technical know-how to help his team strategize, troubleshoot problems and find innovative ways to build R2. The robot also has the potential to revolutionize work in the automobile industry, as well as contribute to developing prosthetic devices for people with disabilities. Despite funding problems, colleagues said the project successfully advanced because Diftler is both technically skilled and adept at managing a team with diverse skills.
Government work: Diftler has been a NASA employee and Robonaut project lead for eight years. During the previous 14 years, he worked as a NASA contractor and deputy lead on the Robonaut project.
Motivation: Diftler has always loved working on robotics and has had a fascination with space exploration. He said it has been a dream come true to “work on something that I love and to have that work contribute to the development of the first in a line of robots that will accompany astronauts on their missions in orbit around the earth and beyond.”
Biggest challenge: Coordinating the large number of people involved in the Robonaut project system, which included meshing the NASA and GM goals and cultures and showing the team that opinions were respected.
Quote: “Space exploration is something that can only be done on a governmental level. Our government has the responsibility to look far in the future, well beyond the short-term return on financial investment, and push us further into the solar system and beyond.”
— From the Partnership
for Public Service
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