Robonauts – The Space Humanoids

One of the biggest problems of sending humans into space is that they are needy. Their frail bodies have a difficult time surviving in zero gravity and require years of training just to go up into space. While we have not figured out interstellar travel yet, nor established fully-armed and operational battle-stations in space, we have certainly gotten closer to the sci-fi concept of having robots that can help out humans in space. Since, outer space is a dangerous place for astronauts, especially when they need to venture out to do maintenance and repair of space-crafts or other satellites, using robots can make space safer for astronauts. Moreover, robots can also take over some of the difficult or boring tasks that astronauts have to do, giving them more time to spend on research and critical work on the International Space Station. With this in mind, robonauts were developed by NASA with the goal of assisting human space exploration, or, ultimately conducting non-human space exploration.

Robonaut is a humanoid robot with the dexterity approaching that of a suited astronaut. The first of the robonaut series is Robonaut 1 (aka R1). Robonaut 1 consisted of a head, two eyes, two arms, and two five-digit hands. The head was mounted on a jointed neck, which allowed it to look up and down and turn from side to side. Moreover, two video cameras within the robot provided stereo-vision to the operator and permitted R1 to track objects. R1’s arms had a greater range of motion compared to human arms due to the presence of more than 150 sensors in each of its arms. The construction of R1 began in 1997, and it served as an experimental platform in field and lab tests until 2006. It was a successful proof of concept but never actually made it into space.

In 2006, NASA and General Motors developed the second generation of robonauts: Robonaut 2 (aka R2). R2 was unveiled by NASA in 2010, and in the following year, it traveled to its permanent home on the International Space Station as a part of one of the final space shuttle missions. R2 has the same basic functionalities as R1. It can be thought of as R1-plus – cheaper, smaller, more advanced and equipped with the greater capability of surviving the rigors of launch and of space. The upper body of R2 is comprised of a head, torso, arms, and hands; attached to a support that was later upgraded to a pair of seven jointed legs. To sense its environment R2’s head is loaded with four cameras, two of which provide stereo-vision to sense the depth of objects in its environment. The two extra cameras can be used if the original ones break down. In addition to this, Robonaut 2 also has an Infrared camera located in its mouth to determine distance by sensing how far away other objects are from it.

Robonaut 2, like its predecessor, is controlled using telepresence – in which the operator guides the robot remotely while seeing through its eyes via on-board cameras. R2 is supposed to automate tasks that are dangerous, dull, repetitive or challenging for human astronauts. One such task, for example, is space-walking which requires tedious procedures for all human astronauts. If R2 is able to go on spacewalks outside the station it can set up worksites and reduce the time humans must spend outside. Since R2 can transition more quickly to the exterior than astronaut, it will be able to respond to emergencies as well.

To sum up, there is hardly any doubt that robots can be used for cheaper, faster, safer and arguably more efficient space exploration than humans can. Robonauts have not only advanced science but can also help open up the industry of affordable space tourism. The possibilities for these humanoid robots are endless. They could be sent to scout out a new planet or asteroid and even be fitted with a jet-pack so that they can zoom around space!

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