Skip to main content

NASA, GM team up to build second generation space robot

By Shelby Lin Erdman, CNN
The space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center April 5. R2 will board the shuttle in September.
The space shuttle Discovery lifts off from the Kennedy Space Center April 5. R2 will board the shuttle in September.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • The robot's name is R2, short for Robonaut 2
  • R2 will travel to the International Space Station aboard the space shuttle Discovery
  • R2 is able to perform experiments in micro-gravity, working with astronauts
RELATED TOPICS

(CNN) -- The next generation of space robot is here.

It looks like an astronaut in a spacesuit, with a head, a torso, two arms and two hands that can grasp and hold objects just like a human hand.

Its name is R2, short for Robonaut 2. And it's heading to the International Space Station aboard the space shuttle Discovery in September.

For more than three years, a team of General Motors engineers and NASA scientists worked side by side at the Houston's Johnson Space center -- designing, engineering and building the 300-pound, human-like machine.

At first, the partnership between a space agency and an auto maker may seem unlikely but it made perfect sense for the R2 venture.

GM has used both industrial and commercial robots in its auto assembly plants, mainly single-arm robots.

"We've used robots for years and years," said Marty Linn, GM's principal robotics engineer. "We use robots in basically every single one of our manufacturing plants today around the world."

Turns out that what the astronauts need on a space mission is not very different from what an operator in an assembly plant needs.

"We spent a lot of effort working on the technologies that will allow us to have robots work right next to human operators very safely," Linn said. "For General Motors, it's really about the the technologies and being able to make the robots safe to work around."

NASA has the same goal.

"This project exemplifies the promise that a future generation of robots can have both in space and on Earth, not as replacements for humans but as companions that can carry out key supporting roles," said a statement from John Olson, director of NASA's Exploration Systems Integration Office.

"The combined potential of humans and robots is a perfect example of the sum equaling more than the parts," he said. "It will allow us to go further and achieve more than we can probably even imagine today."

Linn said the R2 will be an astronaut's helper.

"That's really what it was designed to do, to help astronauts in performing their regular tasks," Linn said.

And at GM, he said, the R2 was about developing technologies that will help build safer manufacturing plants and better-quality vehicles.

It's hoped that the robot will minimize danger to astronauts, relieve them of ergonomically challenging tasks as well as jobs that are dull and repetitive.

R2 will be able to perform a variety of experiments in micro-gravity, basically working side-by-side with the astronauts, but will still be in a testing phase when it arrives at the International Space Station. It isn't built to withstand the extreme temperatures in space, so it will be confined to a lab inside the station. But in the years ahead, scientists hope the R2 will be enhanced enough to move freely around the complex.

Is the R2 a precursor of things to come?

Are there robotic teachers and robotic drivers in the near future? How about robotic babysitters or store clerks?

"I'm a big fan of imagination," Linn said. "And certainly you could imagine all those things. Is it that far off? I don't think so."