Androids have long been the holy grail of sci-fi, and it seems like we’re one step closer to achieving our space race era dreams. NASA ushered in this new age of space exploration with the March 15 run of the Robonaut 2, the world’s first robotic astronaut. What makes Robonaut 2, or R2 for short, especially interesting is its humanoid form.
There have been robots in space before, from the simple yet effective Voyager probes to the sophisticated Mars rover, but these automatons seem like relics when compared to the R2.
The project was “a collaboration between the Robot Systems Technology Branch at the NASA Johnson Space Center and the U.S. military’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to build a robotic ‘astronaut equivalent,’” writes DailyGalaxy.com.
First sent up in February, the robot has just now been unpacked and is currently being tested for zero-gravity functionality. Currently, R2 is just an upper torso, albeit one with a human-like head and highly dexterous arms. R2’s legs are to be sent up next year, writes the Associated Press. Until then, the robot will remain attached to a pedestal inside the International Space Station. Other options for the lower half of the robot include rover-like wheels or upgrades that will allow it navigate in open space.
According to the researchers, over the next few years “the Robonaut system will approach the handling and manipulation capabilities of a suited astronaut.” NASA plans to use R2 to assist astronauts during spacewalks, performing tasks that suited astronauts find difficult or even impossible.
The scientists explain the benefits of a humanoid robot: “The value of a humanoid over other designs is the ability to use the same workspace and tools — not only does this improve efficiency in the types of tools, but also removes the need for specialized robotic connectors.”
In the future, the team hopes to employ “haptic” technology to allow those piloting the robot to receive tactile feedback, potentially allowing space exploration without having to leave Earth. Although not stating the fact outright, NASA admits that robotic precursor missions are a possibility, and envision a scenario in which “R2 would bring one set of tools for the precursor mission, such as setup and geologic investigation.”
Robotic exploration could be the answer to the current problems of deep-space travel, and may make a Mars mission achievable in a much shorter timeframe. It will be interesting to see how robotic astronauts change the face of space exploration, as robotics seems to be a field that’s just now coming into its own.