The real R2D2: NASA preps Robonaut 2 for work in space

By Bob McDonald, host of the CBC science radio program Quirks & Quarks.



The squeaky little robot with attitude, R2D2, who helped Luke Skywalker defeat the Empire in the Star Wars movies, has a real life counterpart that will soon be helping astronauts on the International Space Station. 


Robonaut 2 is a legless torso resembling a human body, sporting a bronze helmet, and has fully operational arms with fully dexterous hands. In fact, it's so talented it makes you wonder if humans will be needed in space at all.


Robonaut is designed to act as an extra crewmember who can assist astronauts with difficult tasks, take on the boring, repetitive jobs and handle activities that would be too risky for humans. It never sleeps, doesn't need to be fed and never argues with you. The robot can use the same tools as humans, so it can be sent outside to do risky space walks while the people watch safely from inside.


On a recent visit to the Johnston Space Center in Houston, I had the privilege to meet several versions of Robonaut.  It's an unnerving experience to stand eye to eye - or should I say face to facemask - with a humanoid robot wearing a white space suit with the familiar NASA logo on its chest.  It can even look towards you, extend an arm and shake hands. What a grip.


Of course, the robot doesn't need to look like a human, but the designers figured it would be easier for the astronauts to accept it as a companion if it looked like them.


The robot works in two modes, automatic and manual. Pre-determined moves can be programmed in, so a single command produces a complex motion, such as picking up equipment and moving it from one place to another. 



(Photo courtesy NASA)

For more random actions, operators don wired gloves and move their hands and arms in the desired way, while the robot mimics the action in every detail in real time.  In this mode, the robot becomes an avatar that could be sent outside to perform the incredible acrobatics astronauts do when maneuvering among the complex of girders and trusses that make up the station.


So if an operator inside can manipulate the robot outside, why does the operator need to be in the space station? They could just as easily be on the ground, operating the robot in space.


Considering how much research has gone into fighting the harmful effects of space flight on the human body, such as bone loss, muscle deterioration, nausea and anemia, it would be a lot less trouble to leave the humans in their natural environment on Earth and let the robots do the space exploration.


Of course, this argument will never fly among the astronaut corps and it's doubtful a robot making the next small step on the Moon would gather the same attention as a human doing it. But building better robots in space is something to consider.


After all, it's robots that have done the real exploration of the other planets in the solar system: driving across the crimson plains of Mars, plunging into the clouds of Jupiter, circling the rings of Saturn. In most cases, the robots boldly go where no humans can.


So while the space shuttle program winds down and NASA tries to figure out how to send humans into space in the future, perhaps it's time to focus on making a new generation of robots that do more than look like us. They could do better than us at half the cost.