October 28, 2021

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

In this image, Robonaut and a spacesuit-gloved hand are extended toward each other to demonstrate the collaboration between robots and humans in space.

It might be very obvious considering my past posts and – if you’ve ever met me – my constant ramblings on the topic, but I’m quite a fan of astronauts. In Issue 20 of I, Science we interviewed former Apollo astronaut Colonel David Scott, which gave us the opportunity to ask a question that is particularly pertinent to the space industry at the minute: Is manned spaceflight necessary, or can robots now do all the tasks required of an astronaut?

R2 using sign language yesterday to say, “Hello World.”

Approximately one month ago on 17 February, NASA activated its attempt at a robotic space-farer: Robonaut 2 – or R2 for short (cue the Star Wars puns). It’s been up in the International Space Station (ISS) for about a year doing nothing in its storage bag. Ironically, it needed to be switched on and tested by the existing crew of the ISS, and has since displayed its dexterity by performing curious tasks such as speaking in sign language and monitoring the air flow by the station’s ventilation ducts. This might sound mundane but is essential for the ISS to work, and is greatly hampered by human movement and breathing while taking the meter readings.

On the official NASA site, Ron Diftler, the Robonaut 2 project manager, clarifies the need for something like R2. “We’re definitely on the right path,” he said. “Robonaut 2 had a chance to use its first tool today. This experiment is the first step in the robot relieving the crew of every dull task and, in time, giving the crew more time for science and exploration.”

There are currently four robonauts in existence, designed for “working side by side with humans, or going where the risks are too great for people” – so at the moment, there are no plans to fully replace humans in space. Colonel David Scott agrees that this view is sensible. “Manned spaceflight is absolutely necessary because of the natural capabilities of humans,” he said when interviewing with I, Science. “However, even the robots of today can perform many of the tasks assigned to humans during Apollo — and such robotic assistance, if properly applied, would open even more opportunities for humans to apply their unique capabilities.”

Watching R2 do his stuff can be quite amusing. I particularly like the soundtrack to this video, in which it takes him around 30 seconds to flick a switch::

Video: YouTube | ReelNasa

Cynicism aside, R2 really is an incredible piece of machinery and has quite a fan base. NASA is pushing the boat out to make R2 accessible to all the social media sites. It has its own accounts on Facebook and Twitter, and a well-updated stream on the NASA site. It’s even inspired a new internet meme, showing how it has really caught the interest of a surprising number of people despite having only started work on Wednesday.

More > Read about the Kilobots, three-legged robots the size of a 10-pence piece.