GM Builds Space-Travel Robot with NASA
WASHINGTON, D.C. – A "human-like" robot that General Motors helped NASA build will take flight later this year and permanently join the International Space Station.
Robonaut — R2, perhaps so named in a nod to the iconic Star Wars movie — was designed to be a "robotic assistant" and to work side-by-side with humans. It is quite versatile, as it was created to lend a hand to astronauts in space as well as GM plant workers on the ground.
R2 weighs in 300 pounds and has a head, torso, two arms and two hands. It will be launched into space on the Discovery shuttle under the STS-133 mission slated for September.
Engineers will examine how the robot operates in a weightless environment after R2 has arrived at the International Space Station.
The station already has another robot, Dextre, which was built by the Canadian Space Agency. Dextre has two long arms and was designed to take care of tasks that would ordinarily require spacewalking astronauts.
Dextre operates outside of the station, while R2 will work inside the Destiny laboratory.
That said, officials suggested that there R2 may be upgraded later down the road to give it greater mobility around the interior of the station. Moreover, there may be future enhancements that would allow it to go outside the station.
"The use of R2 on the space station is just the beginning of a quickening pace between human and robotic exploration of space," shared John Olson, director of NASA's Exploration Systems Integration Office. "The partnership of humans and robots will be critical to opening up the solar system and will allow us to go farther and achieve more than we can probably even imagine today."
In addition to having a human-like appearance, R2 was built to work like a person, as well, as it can use its "human-like" hands and arms to use the same tools as crew members.
What officials said may turn out to be the "greatest benefit" of robots like R2 is that they could be assist or substitute astronauts during spacewalks or complete tasks that might be too difficult or dangerous for people to conduct.
However, at this point, R2 can't go outside the station, as it is a prototype and doesn't have the proper protection to shield it against the temperatures of space.
So to create an intermediate environment, R2 will be tested within the station, where it will encounter zero gravity, the station's radiation and electromagnetic interference environments.
The performance data provided by the interior operations can paint a picture of how well the robot will work with astronauts.
As development on the ground progresses, station crews may be given hardware and software to update R2, enabling it to do more tasks.
To prepare for its mission, R2 is being tested. There are benefits that GM can glean, as well, from R2's vibration, vacuum and radiation tests, as well as other procedures on the robot.
GM says it likely will use R2's technologies in building advanced vehicle safety systems and manufacturing plant applications down the road.
"The extreme levels of testing R2 has undergone as it prepares to venture to the International Space Station are on par with the validation our vehicles and components go through on the path to production," explained Alan Taub, vice president of GM's global research and development.
"The work done by GM and NASA engineers also will help us validate manufacturing technologies that will improve the health and safety of our GM team members at our manufacturing plants throughout the world," he added.
"Partnerships between organizations such as GM and NASA help ensure space exploration, road travel and manufacturing can become even safer in the future," Taub continued.
In fact, the manufacturing engineers at GM have already starting to look for ways to apply the vision, motor and sensor technologies of R2 to help manufacturing workers.
"Our strategy is to develop technologies that can fundamentally change the way we manufacture cars and trucks," stated Kenneth Knight, executive director of the GM Manufacturing Assembly & Automation Center. "This includes a focus on developing ways to further support our operators."