R2 -Robonaut 2 Readies for Liftoff: Signals New Era of Robotic Space Exploration

474478main_robonauttucked When STS 133 lifts off for the International Space Station in November, the future of space exploration will be riding along. The passenger is Robonaut 2, or R2 -a humanoid robot that consists of a head, a torso, two arms, and two hands. The robot astronaut will reside permanently on the ISS. R2 will be able to use tools and provide assistance in dangerous operations such as station repair space walks.

Future models of R2 will be equipped with legs, with one envisioned to go to the Moon as part of a proposed NASA mission called Project M and accompany human explorers to other world to provide assistance in dangerous situation, scouting ahead on other worlds, for example, to determine things are safe for human astronauts who would follow.

R2, is already tweeting about preparations under the account, @AstroRobonaut.

The humanoid robot will be the first dexterous humanoid robot in space and it assures its followers in one of its first tweets alluding to 2001: A Space Odyssey that, "No, no relation to Hal. Don't know if I'd want to admit to having him on my family tree if I was."

Although there are already several robots in space — including the famous now AI-enhanced Mars Rovers, which have been zipping around the red planet for years — NASA and G.M.have created the first human-like robot to leave Earth.

The robot is called Robonaut 2, or R2 for short, and it weighs in at 300 pounds, with a head, torso and two fully functional arms. At first, R2 will be monitored in space to see how it performs in weightlessness, but NASA hopes to eventually use R2 to assist astronauts during space walks and to work alongside engineers in the space station.

In a joint news release, John Olson, director of NASA’s Exploration Systems Integration Office, said, “The partnership of humans and robots will be critical to opening up the solar system and will allow us to go farther and achieve more than we can probably even imagine today.”

According to researchers on the project, "Robonaut systems are the first humanoids specifically designed for space."

Robonaut is a collaboration between the Robot Systems Technology Branch at the NASA Johnson Space Center and the US military's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to build a robotic 'astronaut equivalent'. Robonaut looks a bit like a human, with an upper torso, two arms and a head – all controlled by a human operator through telerobotic technologies. Robonaut was designed with the concept of creating a robot for tasks that 'were not specifically designed for robots.' In order for the Robonaut to complete these 'human-like' tasks, it is equipped with hands that are actually more dexterous than those of an astronaut in a pressurized spacesuit.

In 2004, the second generation of Robonaut gained mobility when engineers attached its body to a Segway Robotic Mobility Platform (RMP) commissioned by DARPA. Using virtual reality instruments, a human operator was immersed in the Robonaut's actual environment and was able to perform remote operations.

According to researchers on Robonaut, "As the project matures with increased feedback to the human operator, the Robonaut system will approach the handling and manipulation capabilities of a suited astronaut."

With more 'haptic technology' which uses sensory feedback to recreate the sense of touch, a user might wear gloves that allow them to 'feel' objects in a virtual world. You could examine the texture and weight of rocks, or even experience the crunch of icy martian dirt. 

Dr Grace Augustine's Avatars on Pandora go well beyond current technologies. We're not going to be growing any biological avatars for human explorers in the lab – but modern robotics are getting close to providing a 'human' experience through increased dexterity and mobility. Robotic avatars could allow humans to fully experience the environment of other worlds. Through the eyes of robotic avatars we could watch the sunrise over the rusty, red crater rims without having to "experience suffocation, the icy death of -200 degrees C on their skin or the sting of microscopic dust in their eyes."

Even though NASA and others have come a long way in developing avatars, the technology still has a long way to go before we're having adventures on Pandora-like planets. Perhaps more advanced civilizations on distant worlds have developed avatars just as good as those in the movie.  

R2 will be a passenger on the Space Shuttle Discovery, which is scheduled to head to the space station in September.

We're looking forward to more of R2s Twitter feed!

Casey Kazan

Source credits: http://www.spacedaily.com/reports/Avatars_In_Space_999.html

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