Last week, the first humanoid robot in space, Robonaut 2, was selected as the NASA Government Invention of the Year for 2014. The robot, which is currently assisting crew aboard the International Space Station, was judged alongside dozens of other space-worthy inventions by the NASA selection committee, which evaluated entries on criteria such as Aerospace Significance, Industry Significance, and Technology Readiness.
The award and the Robonaut project, which is ongoing and, with the help of research universities and project partners like GE, will soon add new humanoid bots to its lineup, are clear signals that robots will play a central role as humans hasten to reach beyond the limits of low earth orbit. The robot also harkens a fast-approaching era of extremely dexterous machines that will bring unprecedented precision to intricate manufacturing processes currently reliant on skilled human labor.
Work on the first Robonaut at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston began in 1997 in collaboration with several partners, including DARPA. The challenge was to build a machine that could dexterously manipulate tools in order to help humans work in space and explore planetary environments.
The ability to manipulate tools autonomously was seen as an especially important goal of the project. This would enable robots to construct necessary infrastructure on alien planets or, more immediately, to fly precursor missions in advance of manned missions in order to set up complex geologic investigations, say, saving astronauts valuable time, oxygen, and resources and reducing the risk of catastrophic accidents. Future space exploration will also require vessels to travel far out of reach of rescue or resupply, meaning repairs will have to be done on the fly if something goes awry, a perfect job for a robot that can navigate the semi-structured environment of a spacecraft.
The decision to make the robots humanoid had to do with the constraints of space-travel. According to NASA, the value of the design is "the ability to use the same workspace and tools" as humans. "Not only does this improve efficiency in the types of tools, but also removes the need for specialized robotic connectors."
But working with tools alongside humans requires a level of dexterity and intelligence most robots lack, and this has been the program's primary measure of success -- and the reason the project is of interest to partner companies like GE. To make a robot more dexterous than a suited astronaut, it needs sensitive digits. The current version of the dual-armed robot has series-elastic joint technology, force-sensing, ultra-high speed joint controllers, and extended finger and thumb travel compared to a human At present it is dexterous enough to change an air filter on the International Space Station, a repetitive task that nonetheless requires careful manipulation of a series of tools in a complex 3D environment.
Robonaut also has redundant force and motion sensors that cause it to shut off when it bumps into something, a crucial feature for a collaborative robot working in close proximity to people, and a technology that's made its way into a new generation of industrial robots.
Last year, the Robonaut 2 unit aboard the International Space Station received lower legs for the first time. The legs, which have prehensile feet, allow the machine to move around the space station on its own, a right it earned after demonstrating it could safely work side-by-side with astronauts. The plan is to upgrade the device by making it more mobile and, eventually, giving it the ability to work outside the ISS, where it can take over dangerous repair work currently performed by humans.