First ever human-like robot to become resident of space station

08:47, February 25, 2011      

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Almost 200 people from 15 countries have visited the International Space Station, but the orbiting complex has so far only ever had human crew members. Now, Robonaut 2, the latest generation of the Robonaut launched Thursday to the station aboard space shuttle Discovery, is set to be the first humanoid robot in space and a permanent resident of the station.

The 330-pound R2, as the robot is called, consists of a head and a torso with two arms and two hands. Once it is unpacked -- likely several months after it arrives at the station -- it will initially be operated inside the Destiny laboratory for operational testing, but over time both its territory and its applications could expand.

Aboard the station, its primary job for now is teaching engineers how dexterous robots behave in space. However, the hope is that through upgrades and advancements, it could one day venture outside the station to help spacewalkers make repairs or additions to the station or perform scientific work.

"This project exemplifies the promise that a future generation of robots can have both in space and on Earth, not as replacements for humans but as companions that can carry out key supporting roles," John Olson, director of NASA's Exploration Systems Integration Office at NASA Headquarters, had said. "The combined potential of humans and robots is a perfect example of the sum equaling more than the parts. It will allow us to go farther and achieve more than we can probably even imagine today."

The dexterous robot not only looks like a human but also is designed to work like one. With human-like hands and arms, R2 is able to use the same tools station crew members use. In the future, the greatest benefits of humanoid robots in space may be as assistants or stand-in for astronauts during spacewalks or for tasks too difficult or dangerous for humans. For now, R2 is still a prototype and does not have adequate protection needed to exist outside the space station in the extreme temperatures of space.

The idea of using dexterous, human-like robots capable of using their hands to do intricate work is not new to the aerospace industry. The original Robonaut, a humanoid robot designed for space travel, was built by the software, robotics and simulation division at Johnson Space Center in a collaborative effort with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency 10 years ago. During the past decade, NASA gained significant expertise in building robotic technologies for space applications. These capabilities will help NASA launch a bold new era of space exploration.

R2 was developed jointly by NASA and General Motors under a cooperative agreement to develop a robotic assistant that can work alongside humans, whether they are astronauts in space or workers at GM manufacturing plants on Earth.

Testing the robot inside the station will provide an important intermediate environment. R2 will be tested in microgravity and subjected to the station's radiation and electromagnetic interference environments. The interior operations will provide performance data about how a robot may work side-by-side with astronauts. As development activities progress on the ground, station crews may be provided hardware and software to update R2 to enable it to do new tasks.

R2 has undergone extensive testing in preparation for its flight. Vibration, vacuum and radiation testing along with other procedures conducted on R2 also benefit the team at GM. The automaker plans to use technologies from R2 in future advanced vehicle safety systems and manufacturing plant applications.

NASA has no plans to return R2 to Earth.

Source:Xinhua
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