NASA's humanoid Robonaut to be unpacked this month

March 8, 2011 - 0:0

A humanoid robot delivered to the space station by the shuttle Discovery should come out of its packing crate by the end of March, and ground crews could start tinkering with the Robonaut soon after, according to NASA officials.

Space station officials hope to unpack Robonaut 2 later this month, but it could be months before NASA trusts the robot to help astronauts do chores on the complex.
Astronauts moved the robot Wednesday from the space station's new Permanent Multipurpose Module to the Destiny laboratory, where the crew expects to take the Robonaut out of its packaging and set it up on the lab's sidewall.
The dexterous robot, also called R2, includes a computerized torso, head and two arms with hands and five fingers. It is designed to accomplish many of the same upkeep tasks astronauts do every day aboard the space station.
It doesn't have legs yet, but officials hope to launch a lower body and upgraded computers in the next few years.
The ""idea was that robot would be doing that work side-by-side with astronauts,"" said Rob Ambrose, chief of the automation, simulation and robotics division at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
The $2.5 million Robonaut could pave the way for humanoid robots to assist spacewalking astronauts, do housekeeping chores and be caretakers in the absence of humans. R2 itself could be ordered to clean handrails and air filters, and NASA officials say it may even be positioned outside the station in several years.
But NASA wants to take it slow with R2 at first, and it could be a while before the robot is crawling around the space station.
""We'll have it set up and then there's a relatively extensive checkout period that we have to do on Robonaut, and then we'll incrementally increase the number of tasks that it does,"" said Royce Renfrew, the lead space station flight director during Discovery's mission.
Discovery was to undock Monday and return to Earth Wednesday, then the space station crew plans to unlimber the outpost's Canadian robotic arm Thursday to move Japan's HTV cargo craft from one berthing port to another.
The HTV was temporarily relocated to the Harmony module's zenith, or space-facing, port last month to make room for Discovery's visit. The ship will spend the rest of its time at the station on Harmony's Earth-facing port.
Managers want the station astronauts to remove R2 from its carrying crate before the HTV cargo logistics freighter is scheduled to leave the complex March 28.
Renfrew said Robonaut's protective packing foam needs to be stowed inside the HTV to get rid of it. Once it leaves the space station, the Japanese spacecraft will be commanded to fall back to Earth and burn up during re-entry, disposing of the lab's garbage.
Mission controllers in Houston could start checking R2's health and putting the robot through a test program later this spring. ""I can't forecast how long that will go on before you ever actually see Robonaut move,"" Renfrew said. ""We'll spend a lot of time checking out the system and seeing how it behaves after the forces that we put on it during the launch.""
R2 was shipped to the space station with a board of simulated switches, latches and triggers to practice for jobs it might be called upon to do in the coming months and years.
""We have a similar system here on the ground,"" Ambrose said before launch. ""We will, of course, try everything first on a ground robot. But the questions remain as to how the robot will work in zero gravity. Will all those interfaces work the same when there's no gravity load on the robot?""
Developed in partnership with General Motors, Robonaut 2 builds upon more than a decade of NASA experimentation and testing with humanoid robot concepts. Two first-generation Robonauts passed a series of analogue tests on Earth, and an identical R2 robot served as a pathfinder for R2B, the device shipped to the station aboard Discovery.
Ambrose said R2 is covered with thousands of sensors, a camera in its head and control electronics in its torso.
The ""robot itself is very sensate,"" Ambrose said. ""It's sensing forces. It's reacting to forces. It reaches out and grabs objects, and it feels when it grabs them. All of that is automatic."" It doesn't use a battery and needs to be plugged in to the station's electrical supply when it is turned on. R2's backpack is a power adapter.
General Motors foresees Robonaut technology making its way to the factory floor in its automobile plants.
""GM engineers are also studying how the technology embedded within R2 can be put to use within manufacturing facilities to help create a safer working environment,"" said Marty Linn, principal robotics engineer at GM. The ""dexterity and endurance of R2 can be used alongside people to help reduce repetitive stress injuries and the R2 sensing capabilities can be used in collision avoidance systems.""
(Source: Spaceflight Now)