NASA's built and is sending a set of high-tech legs up to the International Space Station for Robonaut 2 (R2), the station's robotic crewmember. The new legs will be delivered to the space station aboard the SpaceX-3 cargo resupply mission, due to launch March 16 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
These new legs, funded by NASA's Human Exploration and Operations and Space Technology mission directorates, will provide R2 the mobility it needs to help with regular and repetitive tasks inside and outside the space station. The goal is to free up the crew for more critical work, including scientific research.
Once the legs are attached to the R2 torso, the robot will have a fully extended leg span of nine feet, giving it great flexibility for movement around the space station. Each leg has seven joints and a device on what would be the foot, called an "end effector," which allows the robot to take advantage of handrails and sockets inside and outside the station. A vision system for the end effectors also will be used to verify and eventually automate each limb's approach and grasp.
The new legs are designed for work both inside and outside the station, but upgrades to R2's upper body will be necessary before it can begin work outside the space station.
The legless R2, currently attached to a support post, is undergoing experimental trials with astronauts aboard the orbiting laboratory. Since its arrival at the station in February 2011, R2 has performed a series of tasks to demonstrate its functionality in microgravity:
- During its initial checkout, R2 used sign language to say hello to the world.
- It was the first humanoid robot to shake hands with a human in space: International Space Station Commander Dan Burbank.
- It has worked with its controllers over several months and showed its capabilities for pressing buttons, flipping, switches and turning knobs.
- The robot worked with two crew tools: the air flow meter and an RFID inventory scanner.
- In another R2 important first, the robot was teleoperated by astronaut Tom Marshburn, who used it to catch a free-floating object inside the U.S. lab module of the space station.
In preparation for future spacewalks, R2 has worked inside the space station with space blankets and other flexible materials, both through ground control and through teleoperation by the on-board crew.
Initial checkout of the legs is planned for the end of June and will include joint health checkouts, followed by simple joint motions and opening and closing of the specialized end effectors (feet) designed to grasp handrails. These preliminary checks will be followed by R2's first step.
Technologies developed for Robonaut have led to new robotic devices for future spaceflight that also have direct applications here on Earth. For example, NASA is developing a robotic exoskeleton that could help astronauts stay healthier in space and also aid people with physical disabilities.
The International Space Station serves as a test bed for future technologies that will be vital to human exploration as NASA explores asteroids and Mars. NASA's Space Technology Program is innovating, developing, testing and flying hardware for use in NASA's future missions.
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