Robonaut 2 will become the first humanoid robot to head into space next month when the space shuttle Discovery blasts-off. R2 has been waiting for this trip for a while, but will have to wait a little longer to get its “space-legs” since only its torso, head and arms are making the initial journey. Because R2’s legs are still being tested, they’ll be sent up on a later launch, as will a few other upgrades that are designed to ultimately allow the robot to help astronauts with extra-vehicular activities (EVAs).
Even without its legs, R2 will be kept busy getting up to speed on various tasks. Initially the legless R2 will be attached to a fixed pedestal and learn to use a task board, which contains various switches, knobs and connectors like the ones astronauts operate. To familiarize itself with the task board, the astronauts will mock up various chores for R2 to master.
But it’s when R2 is fitted with its legs that it will really start pulling its weight. They will allow the robot to move around inside the space station to perform mundane tasks such as wiping handrails and vacuuming air filters, freeing the astronauts up for more important tasks.
As R2’s hands need to be free to carry cleaning supplies and tools, its legs have special toes that plug into the space station walls so it can learn to climb without using its hands. It is also important for R2 to master its hands-free climbing skills before it graduates to performing EVAs.
"R2 will practice indoors first because if it falls off inside an astronaut can pick it back up for another try. With a misstep outside, R2 could end up dangling helplessly out in space on a tether," says Rob Ambrose of NASA's Johnson Space Center.
Once R2 gets its climbing badge, it will “level up” as it were, with a new computer and software enhancements to be sent to the station and exchanged for the one currently in the robot's chest. Currently R2 has to be plugged in to receive its power, but the ground crew is also working on a battery to give R2 more freedom.
Once R2 receives all these upgrades it will be used to set up EVA worksites before the crew heads out. Much like a nurse prepping the operating theater for a surgeon, R2 can identify what needs to be done and lay out the tools needed by the astronauts so they can get the job done more quickly.
NASA says R2 can also act as a first responder in the case of an emergency. If a problem arises outside, the astronauts must suit up and depressurize in the airlock for hours before heading out. R2 will be able to head out immediately and the astronauts can use its eyes – two video cameras that give it three-dimensional vision – to view the problem and determine the steps and tools needed to address it.
The beauty of R2 is that, even once it has received all its currently planned upgrades, it can still “evolve.”
"There are so many possibilities for the future," says Ambrose. "For instance, we could add wheels so R2 could scout a potential landing site on a planet or an asteroid or set up a workstation or habitat there. Someday R2 may even get a jetpack! But we have to crawl before we can fly."
NASA is targeting a February 24 launch for the space shuttle Discovery that will see it carrying, in addition to R2, six astronauts and new tools and spare supplies to the International Space Station. It will be the final mission for Discovery and the third-to-last space shuttle mission planned before NASA retires the three current space shuttles.