Robonauts: Controlling the Future of Space?

Beyond NASA

Whatever the future of robonauts, the competition is heating up like a shuttle on re-entry.

  • The European Space Agency is updating its Eurobot with four wheels, two arms, interchangeable hands with tools, an advanced navigation system, cameras and sensors. The agency is also considering partially transforming robots, such as a rover with wheels that become feet.
  • China hopes to send an unmanned rover to the moon by 2012 and launch a robotic mission to bring back samples by 2017.
  • Japan has said that it wants to put a bipedal robot on the moon by 2015 and build a moon base by 2030.

Robonaut 2 (R2), like its predecessor, is controlled using telepresence, in which a person -- either an astronaut or an operator at mission control -- guides the robot remotely while seeing through its eyes via onboard cameras. The operator can wear gloves to operate R2's hands, or control R2's head motions by wearing a helmet remotely linked to the robot's head.

R2 is no mere puppet, however. Like the Mars rovers, the robonaut also operates under supervised autonomy, which means it comes loaded with sequences of commands (scripts) that tell it how to perform certain tasks autonomously. An operator monitors its progress during these actions and can make corrections as necessary in real time. The hope is that R2 will one day graduate from robo-trainee to robo-employee and require very little observation or direction.

Like R1, R2's brains consist of a series of PowerPC processors -- a technology used in other space applications -- running the VxWorks real-time operating system. NASA says that this combination offers flexible computing and supports varied development activities. The system software is written in C and C++. ControlShell software aids the development process and provides a graphical development environment, which enhances researchers' understanding of the system and code.

Initially, R2 will be confined to a lab on the International Space Station. There, it will run tests using a series of boards with switches, knobs and connectors like the ones the astronauts operate. Engineers on the ground will send hardware and software updates as needed. Eventually, R2 will be equipped with a leg or legs complete with toes that fit toeholds built into the station's walls, which will enable R2 to climb while leaving its hands free to carry equipment or perform tasks.

Eventually, R2 will receive extravehicular activity (EVA) equipment and will be able to go on spacewalks outside the station. It will then be able to set up work sites and reduce the time humans must spend outside. Because it can transition much more quickly to the exterior than astronauts, R2 will be able to respond to emergencies as well. NASA is working on a battery (currently R2 has to be plugged in) to increase the R2's range, and future robonauts could be outfitted with wheels or even a jetpack for exploratory and maintenance missions. Nor will dexterous robots like R2 be limited to exploring space: One day, they might enter hazardous locations on Earth in place of humans, like volcanoes and nuclear plants.

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