NASA and General Motors have teamed up to build a new robot dexterous enough to use the same tools as humans, allowing them to work safely alongside humans on Earth or in space. The two organizations aim to develop the next generation of robots and robotic technologies that use leading edge control, sensor and vision technologies, to assist astronauts during hazardous space missions and help GM build safer cars and plants.
Built with the help of engineers from Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston, R2, (short for Robonaut 2 not R2-D2), can use its hands to do work beyond the scope of prior humanoid machines. R2 is faster, more dexterous and more technologically advanced than its predecessor. It also surpasses previous dexterous humanoid robots in strength, yet it is safe enough to work side-by-side with humans. It is able to lift, not just hold, a 20-pound weight (about four times heavier than what other dexterous robots can handle) both near and away from its body.
The original Robonaut (pictured below) was a humanoid robot designed for space travel built in a collaborative effort with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) ten years ago. During the past decade, NASA says it has gained significant expertise in building robotic technologies for space applications, so R2 was born to take advantage of this expertise and new technologies.
"Our challenge today is to build machines that can help humans work and explore in space," said Mike Coats, Johnson's center director. "Working side by side with humans, or going where the risks are too great for people, machines like Robonaut will expand our capability for construction and discovery."
GM has different ideas
"For GM, this is about safer cars and safer plants," said Alan Taub, GM's vice president for global research and development. "When it comes to future vehicles, the advancements in controls, sensors and vision technology can be used to develop advanced vehicle safety systems. The partnership's vision is to explore advanced robots working together in harmony with people, building better, higher quality vehicles in a safer, more competitive manufacturing environment."
This isn’t the first time NASA and GM have teamed up. Aside from partnering up in the 1960s to develop the navigation systems for the Apollo missions, GM also played a vital role in the development of the first vehicle to be used on the moon – the Lunar Rover.
Engineers and scientists from NASA and GM worked together through a Space Act Agreement at the agency's Johnson Space Center in Houston to build R2. It’s not yet clear when R2 will see his first space mission or when technology used in the robot will find it into GM vehicles or plants, but it might not be too long before you run into him at the work water cooler.