The man behind NASA’s space robot

November 6, 2012

An advanced robot with a unique human-like hand is working with astronauts on board the International Space Station, thanks to revolutionary technology developed by a project team headed by Myron Diftler.

Diftler, an aerospace engineer at NASA, used his engineering and technical know-how to help his team strategize, troubleshoot problems and find innovative ways to build Robonaut2, the first-ever humanoid robot in space.

Robonaut2, developed by NASA and General Motors, not only has advanced robotics to assist astronauts in space, but has the potential to revolutionize work in the automobile industry, as well as contribute to developing prosthetic devices for people with disabilities here on earth. There are 16 patents awarded or in process on the robotic hand alone, which Diftler started working on 15 years ago as part of NASA’s first foray into humanoid robotics.

This second-generation robot astronaut, R2 for short, can work safely with people, a huge advance in robotics. High-energy robots have caused injuries to their flesh-and-blood coworkers in the past, and it’s expensive to install the safety measures that wall off and restrict mechanical workers to their own separate areas.

“R2 is still in its early stages, but to have a humanoid robot that can work alongside humans and perform tasks traditionally performed by humans is an incredible advancement,” Diftler said.


(Myron Diftler)

R2 can wiggle its fingers, lift weights, feel contact forces and shake hands with people. More importantly, hands are essential for the efficient use of human tools and devices, such as the latches, knobs and handles found on the space station. The hands are connected to skin covered arms that have multiple levels of force control to ensure safe and comfortable interaction with astronauts.

Diftler took the innovative approach of building safety into the design and development of the robots from the beginning, under a vision that was “antithetical” to what most in the robotics world were doing, according to Michael Ryschkewitsch, NASA’s chief engineer.

Although NASA has been working on humanoid robotics for more than a decade, the first R2 prototypes weren’t specifically designed to work in space.

Diftler and his team were asked in 2010 to be ready to put a robot on the space station in six months, when it normally takes three to four years to build such a complex piece of hardware and certify it.

This required testing deficiencies and dismantling the robot while new parts were designed and built to survive the radiation environment on the space station, and then reassembling the robot meticulously so it was ready for the rigors of launch. They managed to successfully redesign and fabricate replacement parts, certify the robot in record time and launch it with the astronauts in February 2011. That allowed R2 to show off in space, signing, “Hello World,” in American Sign Language, thanks to the dexterous limbs and state-of-the-art processers.

“When faced with very aggressive timelines, Dr. Diftler’s team rose to the occasion,” said Ryschkewitsch. “These guys carried through with their strategy to build a robot from the ground up that can work with humans.”

NASA hopes that the R2 units can take over repetitious, dull or ergonomically challenging tasks astronauts have to do in space. With only six crew members on the space station, R2 can be an extra “body” in space that will allow crew members more time to conduct vital scientific research.

“There are many tasks that can be more efficiently offloaded to robots,” Diftler said. “In space, there’s a lot of set-up before the task is actually started and a lot of teardown after the task is done, particularly on the space station. If a robot can perform that task, it allows a crew person to spend more time doing the things only a crew person can do.”

There are four R2’s, although the other three have been terrestrial robots so far.

Despite funding issues, the project advanced as far as it did because Diftler not only was technically astute at the engineering aspect, but also is an expert at managing a team with diverse skills. The results of Diftler’s work will have long-lasting value. “What Ron and his team have accomplished is truly compelling and is changing the world of robotics,” said Stephen Altemus, director at NASA’s Engineering Directorate.

This article was jointly prepared by the Partnership for Public Service, a group seeking to enhance the performance of the federal government, and washingtonpost.com. Go to www.servicetoamericamedals.org/nominate to nominate a federal employee for a Service to America Medal and http://washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/fedpage/players/ to read about other federal workers who are making a difference.

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