Feature: NASA's humanoid brings out-of-this-world technology down to Earth
HOUSTON, Jun 25, 2013 (Xinhua via COMTEX) --
by Betty L.Martin
Robonaut 2, a humanoid which works
with astronauts in the International Space Station's zero gravity,
can be adapted for Earth's factories, oil and gas fields, toxic
environments, bomb searches and surgical theaters, experts with
the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said in a recent
The robot's patented and patent-pending functions, designed in
a cooperative venture between NASA and General Motors, were
introduced during the NASA Tech Briefs Robonaut 2 internet
webinar, a web seminar.
"Robonaut 2 takes robotics to a whole new level," said Ron
Diftler, Robonaut Project Manager of NASA's Johnson Space Center.
"We have developed many unique systems for Robonaut 2.... Robonaut
2 is an impressive example of megatronics and electronics."
The many unique systems for Robonaut 2 include its head, neck,
arms and hands that have a wide range of dexterity and a total of
42 independent degrees of motion freedom and 350 motion sensors.
It can complete some tasks with fewer tools and greater efficiency
than its human counterparts, said Diftler.
In slides accompanying the webinar, Robonaut 2 looked like a
muscular crash-test dummy as it completed a variety of tasks at
the space station and on Earth. Diftler assured webinar
participants, however, that the robot is no dummy.
"The Robonaut 2 can hold a 20-pound weight for 20 minutes with
its arm fully extended, so it can perform tasks that humans would
not want to do or not be capable of doing," Diftler said. "The
robot is safe for use around humans. The robot moves at human
speed and its arms are highly responsive to contact."
The robot can focus on its task and ignore interruptions,
Diftler said, such as moving a box or other hindrance out of the
way in its mission to retrieve an object. In the microgravity
environment of space, the robot also can reach out and move
external debris floating in front of its face and get on with its
It also can "learn" or store information for future tasks, for
example, locating a grommet on a piece of cloth and later
identifying the grommet's exact location using information it has
"The robot can use its hands to provide a nonvisual map and be
more efficient the second time around," Diftler said.
The robot's head can look left, right, up or down, and its
precise arm joints are responsive to contact. Each of its parts,
including each part of every finger, is controlled by tactile
sensing. For some tasks, this is done through tele-operations by a
human in technical gear simulating the tasks to be performed; for
other tasks, the robot is programed to work independently.
"The robot essentially moves like a marionette, moving in the
same way the operator moves," Diftler said. "The robot can also
operate autonomously with no human control."
The robot's hands are modeled after human hands, which means
that once the robot is set up for a task, the human controller
might only need to crook a finger or move a hand to set the robot
"One of the most amazing things about Robonaut 2 is the way it
can perform multiple tasks," Diftler said. "It can also vary its
One of the unique things about Robonaut 2, Diftler said, is its
ability to use the same tools used by astronauts and commercial
industry workers, thereby saving the need for specialized tools
designed for robots.
Dave Leestma, NASA Johnson Space Center's manager of technology
transfer, said the robot's recognition system can tell the
difference between a person sitting, standing or moving.
The robot's dexterity of movement makes it ideal for work in
close proximity to humans. It can handle inventory, turn a wheel,
fold a piece of fabric, operate a forklift or prepare count and
sterilize equipment before and after medical procedures, Leestma
"Robonaut 2 can handle tasks at multiple stations thereby
reducing the need for multiple robots to perform multiple
activities," Leestma said. "In a standard assembly line...you have
multiple robots doing standardized tasks. Robonaut 2 is oriented
to specialized tasks."
Work in hazardous areas, combat operations -- bomb detection or
disposal -- or tasks that lead to a high degree of fatigue in
humans are ideal for Robonaut 2, Leestma said.
While oil rig workers on offshore operations may have to be
evacuated in the case of a pending hurricane, Robonaut 2 can stay
behind to work, he said.
General Motors' needs for robotic help on its factory floors
and NASA's need for zero-gravity expertise in space led to the
creation of Robonaut 2. Now NASA is searching for partners or
independent contractors that can use the robot or some of its
patented technologies, Leestma said.
One early offshoot of Robonaut 2 is a glove that can help
people with range of motion problems such as osteoarthritis,
"We'd like to talk to you about how R-2 can help your
companies," he said.
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