July 26, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

Question: What do mice, dogs, squirrel monkeys, tortoises, oyster toadfish, harvester ants, carpenter bees, turtles, humans, newts, chimpanzees and flour beetles all have in common?

Answer: They have all been into space!

This is by no means an exhaustive list of all the animals (which also includes ourselves) we have sent into the heavens, and many of these species have experienced extra-terrestrial flight on more than one occasion.

r2 robot nasa

However, there is one ‘creature’ that is currently enjoying a birds eye view of Planet Earth for the very first time: the first humanoid robot has been sent into orbit aboard the final mission of NASA’s space shuttle Discovery. Robonaut 2 (R2) is accompanied by a crew of 6 humans who are delivering vital supplies of water, oxygen and spare parts to the International Space Station. Discovery is expected to dock with the ISS today and is scheduled to return to Earth after 11 days, leaving R2 behind indefinitely.

Engineers from NASA, General Motors and Oceaneering Space Systems developed the Robonaut series of humanoid robots and believe this latest version to be light years ahead of its predecessors. R2 is able to work and travel at speeds of up to 4 times faster than previous models and has a much deeper and wider range of sensing. With near-human dexterity, elastic joint technology, extended finger and thumb travel, ultra high speed joint controllers and a high resolution camera, R2 is able to use the same tools that are currently used by human astronauts.

R2 is described as a ‘highly dexterous anthropomorphic robot’ and it is hoped that it will one day be an invaluable member of the crew, able to perform repetitive, mundane or even dangerous maintenance and service tasks and even spacewalks, removing the need for astronauts to do so. Before this is a reality, R2 will be subjected to a series of simulated experiments to determine its capabilities in the microgravity environment aboard the ISS. A twin robot has been left behind at the NASA Johnson space centre where scientists are working on its sensing and control systems. These improvements will be based on the findings of the preliminary tests aboard the ISS and new software will be uploaded to further improve R2’s capabilities.

The practical applications of R2 are not limited to space. Engineers at General Motors are also investigating how R2’s technology can be beneficial for terrestrial manufacturing industries. With such a high level of dexterity and endurance, R2’s technology could create a much safer working environment, reducing the rate of repetitive stress injury (apparently a major concern). R2’s sensory capabilities may also be put to good use in the development of collision avoidance systems.

As we are in the midst of award season, it is nice to hear that R2’s astonishing technological abilities have been recognized by the readers of popular technology website Engadget.com, awarding R2 the prestigious title of ‘Robot of The Year’. If the onboard experiments are fruitful and R2 becomes a fully-fledged member of the ISS maintenance team, maybe it will be able to defend its title for several years to come.