Robonaut is the First
Humanoid Space Robot!

Robonaut combines the two coolest types of robots in only one robot! It's a humanoid space robot designed to help astronauts in the International Space Station (ISS). He will be launched on February 24th, 2011. At that time, it will be the first and only humanoid robot in space. Actually, it is only a semi-humanoid, since it doesn't have legs. Now, Let's take a closer look at it.

Robonaut, the latest crew of the ISS

ISS' latest crew. NASA

1) History of the Robot Astronaut

The robot that will be launched in space in February 2011 has the code name R2. Indeed there were several versions of the robot in the last 15 years. Though NASA started to work on a humanoid robot since 1996, the first prototype came out in 2002. It looked like a solider of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars boosted with steroids! It was mounted on a Segway platform in 2004, and then on a rover platform in 2006 (It was then called the Robonaut Centaur). It is one of the strength of this space robot: it's upper body is independent of its lower body. Therefore it can be mounted on any kind of locomotion, from wheels to legs to wall anchors in the ISS.

Robonaut Centaur and its friend ATHLETE
Robonaut Centaur and its friend ATHLETE in the desert of Arizona

The first version was tested in the deserts of Arizona with a few friends. It showed great results and caught the eye of General Motors (GM), which was developing its own space robotics technology. Together they created Robonaut 2 (or R2 in short). It looks less big than his big brother, but don't underestimate him. He is stronger, more accurate and faster than R1. As I said, it launched in February, and should be ready to work somewhere in March or April 2011 (they're so busy in ISS!).

Now that you know about its creation. Next, let's show off his abilities.

2) What can Robonaut do?

Robonaut can do a lot of things. It has 4 cameras in its head for detailed color and depth information. It has more than 30 processors in its chest for "thinking" and processing all the programs that run in it. Its back-pack carries its food (it likes batteries, good for him. It could be changed for solar panels one day). It also has the usual motors (though his are adapted for zero-gravity), torque sensors and others to help it do its many tasks.

"Can it learn?" you ask me. Yes it does. There are actually two ways it can realize its task. One is to learn before hand and the other is to be teleoperated by a human from the Nasa Space Center. But even for learning, it just means Robonaut (or its twin on Earth) is teleoperated to show the right actions to do so that it can then reproduce them during the real task.

Teleoperating Robonaut
Yes, he is paid for that!
Teleoperating Robonaut

What is teleoperation, then? It means that an engineer is moving his hands and arms and that the robot follows his movements to perform the actions in another location. It's like the avatar system, but the operator actually has to move to perform the action (the brain control is not implemented yet!). See the picture to have an idea at what the operator looks like.

In the ISS, the humanoid space robot will be attached to a wall in its work station. If it behaves well and is serious about its work (or if the tests go well), it will be able to move around from one work station to another. One of the goals of the project at the beginning was to be able to attach the dexterous robot on the Canadarm. It would allow to save astronauts' time and safety by sending the robot team operated from Earth to fix problems outside the ISS.

3) To the Moon and beyond...

A small step for Robonaut
A big step for robotics
Robonaut, the first humanoid on the Moon?

So far, the Astro Robot is programmed to work in the ISS. But it has a lot more ambition. It wants to reach for the Moon in 1000 days, in a mission called "Project M" (M stands for 1000 in Latin numerals, but may also stands for Moon). The goal of the mission is to design the legs and a Lunar Lander for the humanoid robot. It would then arrive on the Moon with a few scientific tools and conduct some experiments.

Some NASA engineers would teleoperate the robot from the Earth (there is only 1s lag to reach the Moon) to make serious experiments as well as some educational programs for showing some basic stuff about gravity and weight for school kids.

Will the robot astronaut ever be sent on Mars? Possibly. In that case, the Moon trip would be a great way to test the robot's mobility and teach him how to move on unknown grounds. Indeed, the lag time on Mars is several minutes, so there is no way to use teleoperation. Just like the other Mars rovers, the humanoid space robot will have to walk by autonomously to follow the orders coming from Earth. Another issue will be to give it better batteries, or some way to charge them regularly with the solar panels for example.

I will update this page with the latest news when it will be launched and ready for action in the ISS.

Ready for action! NASA

Other pages that may interest you:

The challenges of Robots in Space. Robots and used more in more in space. Not only to explore, but also to help you in your daily life.

Honda robot Asimo was one of the first fully functional humanoid robots ever made. Even today it can still do many unique things.

Find out about the Nuclear Battery of the Curiosity Rover. While it won't explode, the battery will allow the rover to work day and night, summer and winter for many years.

Update: R2D2 on the moon?

Today is March 1st 2012, and I discovered that Robonaut 2 would probably never go to the Moon. The project is still on, but Robonaut was not kept. I hope they will still send some kind of rover that would lay out the foundation of a Moon base.

Anyway, I don't need to keep this any longer: the Project M has always been about only 1 thing, and that's why they changed its name to Project Morpheus now.

Project M was all about sending R2D2 to the Moon! And here is the proof:

R2D2 was supposed to land on the Moon. You can use "right-click->view image" to see bigger.

Click here to go back from Robonaut to the Humanoid Robots page.

Click here if you prefer to learn more about other Space Robots.

You can go back to the Personal Robot Home Page by clicking this link.

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