Robonaut, a space walker without legs

Among the numerous space-oriented robotic projects, Robonaut is undoubtedly one of the most exciting. Developped by the Robot Systems Technology Branch at NASA's Johnson Space Center, Robonaut intends to become a kind of intelligent assistant for astronauts, especially during "EVA missions" (EVA is for ExtraVehicular Activity, or spacewalks).

An anthropomorphic robot the size of a human wearing a space suit, Robonaut has no legs, but a torso with two arms terminated by five-fingered hands. These hands - and what they allow - are extremely sophisticated (as is the whole robot, anyway). Each arm has 150 sensors, connected to an onboard CPU, giving to the robot a better dexterity than a human in space.

For the "brain", Robonaut has got a visual and cerebral cortex, and a smart "memory". All these systems make possible visual and speech recognition, auto-learning, or eyes/hands coordination. This unusually complete collection of features is still upgraded as the project goes on. Since October, the robot has the ability to determine the temperature of an object without touching it, thanks to its infra red thermometer nose.

Robonaut could be used during space missions in two ways. First, it can be teleoperated by a human, allowing works in space without the presence of astronauts. But the robot can also boast to have its own autonomy. The first experiments, having the robot reacting to voice orders to find and deliver a tool were completed with success. Even if the tool or the human asking it moved during the experiment (Robonaut had to react and could not rely on its memory...).

Thus, this project could well lead to a brand new kind of "smart" astronauts, that will not need oxygen nor know anything about space sickness, and that could make themselves indispensable in space maintenance. Add to that its almost incredible "Sci-Fi" look, and Robonaut could become a high-flyer of tomorrow's robotics stars. OK, it is already.

Photos © NASA
Cyril Fievet, November 17, 2001


Related websites
  • NASA - Robonaut

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