December 10, 2013
NASA’s Robonaut 2 Gets Space Legs To Help Out ISS Astronauts
Brett Smith for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online
In what seems to be the latest step toward Star Trek-like technology, NASA has finished building mechanized legs for the International Space Station’s (ISS) robotic crew member, R2.
Currently attached to a support post, the R2 robot arrived on the ISS back in February 2011 and has been performing a series of tasks to test its functionality in a microgravity environment.
"NASA has explored with robots for more than a decade, from the stalwart rovers on Mars to R2 on the station," said Michael Gazarik, NASA's associate administrator for space technology in Washington.
[ Watch the Video: Robonaut Legs In Motion ]
Funded by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations and Space Technology mission directorates, the mechanical climbing legs are expected to provide R2 with the mobility necessary for helping with simple and repetitive tasks both inside and outside the space station. NASA said it hopes to eventually use the “robonaut” to free up the crew for conducting scientific research projects.
"Our investment in robotic technology development is helping us to bolster productivity by applying robotics technology and devices to fortify and enhance individual human capabilities, performance and safety in space,” Gazarik said.
With its new legs, the robot will have a leg span of 9 feet, giving it a wide range of motion for moving around the ISS. Each leg has seven joints and a ‘foot,’ which is being called an 'end effector.' These robo-feet will allow the R2 to use handrails and sockets both inside and outside the station. The end effectors are also able to see via a vision system, which will be used to assist in the automation of each limb.
While new legs are designed to operate both inside and outside the station, upgrades to R2's upper body will be needed before the robonaut can go for a space walk.
R2 has previously been mounted atop a mobile base called Centaur 2. NASA said the wheeled base would “allow the dexterous humanoid robot to help with the future exploration of distant planetary surfaces.”
In addition to designing a system that can help astronauts improve their productivity, the R2 endeavor also has applications for use on Earth. For example, NASA engineers are currently developing a robotic exoskeleton that could keep astronauts healthier while in space or aid people with physical disabilities.
NASA's newest robonaut R5 is expected to debut later this month in the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency's (DARPA) Robotics Challenge. The challenge, which includes robots from a variety of institutions, will have robots executing a series of complex tasks in hazardous, artificial environments. The robots are expected to be able to use standard tools and equipment commonly found in human environments, from hand tools to vehicles.
Last week, DARPA announced the addition of four new entrants to the robotics challenge – making a grand total of 17. The new entrants built both robotic hardware and software systems using their own funds.
“DARPA structured the challenge to encourage participation by experts in hardware and software alike since both fields are necessary to provide a realistic baseline on the current state of robotics,” said Gill Pratt, who manages the challenge. “The diversity of approaches we expect to see demonstrated at the DRC Trials will mark the beginning of an important transformation in robotics, and these approaches will be further refined going into the DRC Finals in 2014.”
Image 2 (below): NASA’s Robonaut 2 is shown with the newly developed climbing legs, designed to give the robot mobility in zero gravity. R2's new set of legs are ready to head to space early next year. Credit: NASA