NASA’s Robonaut 2 (R2) isn't half the robot it used to be. On Monday, the space agency released images and video showing new legs that will be added to the robot assistant currently working aboard the International Space Station (ISS). The currently upper-body-only R2 will receive its new limbs early next year.
The new legs aren't for walking, since R2 is designed to work in a weightless environment. Instead, these are climbing legs that are a bit like what you’d find on a sloth. Built using funds from NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations and Space Technology mission directorates, the new legs, which contain seven joints each, span 9 ft (3 m) when fully extended. Instead of feet, they sport "end effectors" consisting of a gripper and a camera. This allows the robot to move about and anchor itself, while the video camera allows the operator to verify what the robot is doing and, eventually, let the machine move autonomously.
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On the downside, if the aim of R2 was to produce a humanoid robot that would be reassuring for astronauts to work with, then the legs are a bit of a backstep, as they give it the appearance of some Lovecraftian offspring of C3P0 and a giant albino spider monkey.
R2 is a project by the Dexterous Robotics Laboratory at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. The idea is to create a humanoid robot that is dexterous, can use standard tools, and work comfortably beside astronauts both inside and outside a spacecraft. It works by telepresence, but it can also work autonomously with only occasional verification.
Until now, R2 has been only half a robot. That’s because it was originally designed as an experimental prototype. However, the robot worked out so well that it was modified and sent to the International Space Station on February 24, 2011 for field testing in free fall. It’s since been spending most of its time attached to a support post while undergoing trials.
R2’s ultimate function will be to take on regular and repetitive tasks, such as vacuuming and cleaning air vent filters, so the station crew can be freed up for more important duties. However, it can’t do that while bolted to a stanchion, so R2 needs a way of getting around, hence the legs.
According to NASA, the legs can work outside the space station, but if the rest of the robot wants to go along, it will need an upgrade.
The technology for Robonaut hasn't stood still with the R2. NASA says that Robonaut 5 will compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge beginning on December 20, where it will be required to carry out tasks in a simulated disaster area using standard tools and vehicles.
The video below shows Robonaut 2 stretching its legs.