If you ever visit NASA’s Johnson Space Center and get to meet the Robonaut 2 prototype, be sure to shake the robot’s hand, since it can do that, and congratulate it. The actual Robonaut 2 (R2), the first humanoid robot in space, was recently selected as the NASA Government Invention of the Year for 2014. While R2 resides aboard the International Space Station, many of the technologies developed for R2 are being adapted for use on Earth, helping to give it the distinction of an outstanding government invention.
R2 is recognized as an invention that exemplifies one of NASA’s missions: to transfer advanced technology to U.S. industry. The robot was chosen from among many other valuable innovations by the NASA Invention and Contributions Board, NASA General Counsel and the NASA Administrator, Charlie Bolden. These entities evaluated R2 in the following areas: Aerospace Significance, Industry Significance, Humanitarian Significance, Technology Readiness Level, NASA Use, Industry Use and Creativity.
“I am proud of the entire Robonaut team that made this achievement possible and look forward to future robotic firsts that I have no doubt they will accomplish,” said Ron Diftler, Ph.D., project manager for Robonaut in the Robotic Systems Technology Branch at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.
The first Robonaut, R1, was built as a ground prototype to explore the potential for a humanoid robot to help astronauts during spacewalks by preparing worksites and providing an extra pair of dexterous hands during maintenance tasks. NASA has since gained expertise in expanding robotic technologies for space and Earth applications through the successful creation of partnerships with outside organizations. R2 was co-developed with General Motors (GM) through a Space Act Agreement. R2 is a faster, more dexterous robot than the first iteration of Robonaut. With more sensing, a greater range of motion and a safety system that allows it to work side-by-side with astronauts, R2 holds great potential to assist with space station activities.
Technologies resulting from R2 include a robotic glove, a robotic exoskeleton and telemedicine applications. The R2 technology has resulted in a total of 39 issued patents, with several more still under review.
The robotic glove, or the Robo-Glove, was developed as a grasp assist device after NASA and GM realized there was overlap between what astronauts needed in space and what factory workers could use on the ground. The Robo-Glove could help astronauts close their gloves and reduce the amount of effort they apply while conducting EVA tasks, much like the way power steering helps to steer a car. The glove also may help the factory workers to grip a tool longer with less discomfort by reducing the amount of force that they need to exert. This could result in less fatigue and fewer stress injuries.
NASA and the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC), with the help of engineers from Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston, jointly developed a robotic exoskeleton called X1. Currently in the research and development phase, X1 is a 57-pound robotic device that a human could wear over his or her body either to assist or inhibit movement in leg joints. NASA and IHMC streamlined R2 arm technology to make it slim enough to allow a person in a wheelchair to get out using the exoskeleton. The X1 device has the potential to allow for assisted walking over varied terrain to paraplegics or other patients in rehabilitation settings, and also produce sufficient force to be an effective low mass exercise device for future space missions.
The Houston Methodist Research Institute and NASA also worked together to test R2 for use in telemedicine, conducting medical procedures through electronic communication by remotely operating R2 to perform an ultrasound scan of a medical mannequin and to use a syringe as part of a procedure. This demonstration of R2’s capabilities could potentially allow physicians to conduct complex medical procedures on humans in remote locations on Earth or in space.
The NASA Invention of the Year is a first for a humanoid robot and another in a series of firsts for R2 that include: the first robot inside a human space vehicle operating without a cage and the first robot to work with human-rated tools in space. Using the International Space Station as a test bed for these robotic and future technologies will be vital to human exploration and beneficial to human health.