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Giant leap forward for space robotics

The Robonaut prototype is dexterous in handling tasks  

Robonauts may be stepping out
soon in a galaxy near you

June 15, 2000
Web posted at: 8:36 p.m. EST (0036 GMT)

In this story:

More flexible than humans
Controlled in virtual reality

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(CNN) -- The next generation of spacewalkers could fix faulty satellites and space stations without breaking a sweat, needing a meal or expecting a paycheck. Already the first one, a metal humanoid known as Robonaut, has developed an impressive level of dexterity.

Resembling a centurion, the prototype is a big leap ahead in attempts to develop robots for use in space, according to NASA. Within a few years, similar Robonauts could work outside the confines of a spacecraft, performing routine maintenance alongside astronauts.

"We've made some pretty significant steps forward. Previous ones were larger and not as dexterous as current ones," said Chris Culbert, chief of robotics systems at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Predecessors suffered from problems with bulk. But Robonaut has slimmed down to the size of an astronaut in a spacesuit, the ideal size for working with equipment designed over the decades for human-size users.

Robonaut possesses flexible and sophisticated arms and hands, complete with five fingers, a sturdy torso and a head equipped with two color cameras for stereoscopic eyes. A skin made of woven material similar to spacesuit fabric protects vulnerable areas against radiation and the extreme temperature variations of space.

More flexible than humans

The likeness between Robonaut and "Star Wars" bounty hunter Boba Fett is strictly a coincidence, NASA says  

In some ways, Robonaut exhibits more flexibility than humans. Its wrists can rotate more, for example. It can grip power tools and tether ropes, but its strength does not yet match that of its biological cousins.

"If you'd thumb wrestle Robonaut now, you'd win. In a couple years from now, that probably won't be true," Culbert said.

The design of Robonaut's crude nervous system, a web of sensors, software and circuits, was borrowed from human anatomy. Engineers concentrated most of the controls and command structures in a mechanical backbone.

"There's no brain in the head because it's limited in size. It pretty much all goes in the torso. We don't have to worry about a digestive system."

Such robots would complement astronauts, not replace them. During space walks now, astronauts devote as much as one-third of their time to tasks such as installing foot restraints and laying out tools, routine jobs that a robot could perform, Culbert said.

Controlled in virtual reality

The Robonauts would complement astronauts,
not replace them.

Robonaut lacks the critical and creative intelligence necessary to handle complex tasks and unpredictable obstacles that often crop up in orbit.

"They can't think on the fly like humans," Culbert said.

But Robonaut has plenty of mechanical moves, controlled by a human with virtual reality eyes and hands. In a demonstration, cameras in Robonaut's head beam visual information to eyeglasses worn by a NASA technician, who directs the robot's arms and fingers by moving gloves wired with sensors.

The system "gives a human the impression he's in the robot," Culbert said.

Sporting an epoxy helmet inspired by centurion armor, Robonaut resembles Boba Fett, an interstellar bounty hunter in the "Star Wars" movie series. NASA said the likeness is purely coincidental.

"We didn't intend for it to look like Boba Fett," Culbert said. "We took it from a generic head model. We haven't contacted ['Star Wars' director] George Lucas to see how he feels about it yet."

NASA home page
Johnson Space Center

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