NASA's humanlike robot to do chores at space station

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By Mike Swift
Sunday, January 30, 2011

SAN JOSE - To watch NASA's Robonaut 2 tip its head and gaze down at its open palms as it flexes its fingers and opposable thumbs is to believe there must be a human behind the opaque gold visor on the robot's face. In fact, there are only cameras.

Robonaut 2, which NASA hopes to launch Feb. 3 aboard the space shuttle Discovery on a flight to its permanent home at the international space station, will be the first human-like robot to fly in space.

Based on technology nurtured in part at NASA's Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif., and built jointly by the space agency and General Motors, the robot has a head, two arms and a humanlike chest and shoulders. It has fingers, thumbs and wrists with enough dexterity to grip a pen and write "hello." It can even dial an iPhone.

Robonaut 2 was built "to bring robots to the next level," said Vytas SunSpiral, a senior robotics researcher at Ames, "to where you could see them working in people's houses, or out in public."

NASA intends to use Robonaut to do tasks that are too dangerous for humans, such as risky spacewalks, as well as for jobs that are too mundane, like swabbing the internal surfaces of the space station to prevent bacterial buildup - an onerous task that now falls to astronauts. On Earth, GM hopes to use a future version of Robonaut, or component pieces of its technology, on its assembly lines or even inside its cars.

Why make Robonaut 2 look so human? In part, it's so the robot - whether on the space station or a GM assembly line - can use the same tools, grip the same handles and push the same buttons as humans. (Robonaut will launch without legs, but NASA plans to send some up on a future flight to allow it to move around the space station and, ultimately, do spacewalks.)

"We are putting the robot into the station in order to do tasks that were originally designed for astronauts, so the tools and interface are all scaled in a way that makes sense for a human," said SunSpiral, a senior researcher with the Intelligent Robotics Group at Ames.

'Elastic actuator'

But engineers who worked on Robonaut 2 say the machine may mark a milestone in the relationship between humans and robots, as robots evolve toward a place so far only visited in science fiction novels, where they would work side by side with people.

"There is a certain connection that people feel toward things that look similar to them," said Marty Linn, principal robotic engineer for GM, who worked with NASA engineers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for more than three years on Robonaut 2. "You are looking to have a machine that is going to be able to work in an environment with humans."

A key feature that makes that possible is that its limbs and joints are built to be like a human body, in that they can be both strong and rigid, or soft and compliant, depending on the situation. Unlike other robots, Robonaut's control motors have what engineers call an "elastic actuator," essentially a spring built into the motor. If Robonaut collides with a control panel, or an astronaut, there should not be collateral damage.

"Having that ability to adapt to the world physically, not just through [computer] algorithms, but through your physical structure, you can really enhance a robot's ability to engage in the physical world," SunSpiral said. "That is really a necessary step to make it so that humans and robots can safety operate together."

GM does not disclose the amount of its Robonaut 2 investment, but Linn said the project has produced about 40 patents. One goal is to improve the quality of its assembly lines.

"Anytime you can get to operations that are very mundane and very repetitive, you'd like to be able to automate those things to help the [human] operators add value to the product," Linn said.

Side benefits

At Ames, SunSpiral worked on Robonaut 1 until 2006. Robonaut 1 was an earlier version in which a person operated the robot through virtual reality goggles and sensors. "You would be telepresent in the robot," he said. "You really felt like when you put all this gear on, you would be looking out from the robot's eyes, and when you looked down at your arm, you would see the robot move its arm. It was really a transformative experience."

Because of the time delay in space communications, NASA and GM needed Robonaut 2 to be more independent. It will be controlled by space station astronauts but can be programmed to do specific tasks and complete them autonomously. NASA foresees humanoid robots eventually repairing satellites or serving as advance scouts for astronauts to asteroids, comets or Mars. But SunSpiral, who will help demonstrate Robonaut's capabilities in space, sees other human benefits.

Robots, he said, are "a tool to learn more about ourselves."

- San Jose Mercury News


© 2011 The Washington Post Company

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