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Feature: NASA's humanoid brings out-of-this-world technology down to Earth
[June 25, 2013]

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 seminar.

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 task.

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 stored.

"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 to work.

"One of the most amazing things about Robonaut 2 is the way it can perform multiple tasks," Diftler said. "It can also vary its tasks." 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 said.

"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, Leestma said.

"We'd like to talk to you about how R-2 can help your companies," he said.

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