Droid from NASA

No – it’s not an extra from a George Lucas bar scene – but with two arms, two 5-fingered hands, a head and a torso, this droid from NASA represents a huge step forward for anthropomorphic robotic systems.

Capable of using a range of tools, and controlled by an advanced telepresence system, Robonaut, designed at the Johnson Space Centre, can lift small objects with tweezers, but is powerful enough to lift a 21 pound weight on the Earth’s surface.

Since exploration of the heavens began, space hardware has been designed for humans, and Robonaut has been developed with astronauts’ existing tools in mind.

Designed to carry out external repairs on the International Space Station, Robonaut offers a number of advantages, not only will an operator control it from the safety of the space station, but it will also have a much quicker response time than a human.

Designed with the performance of a suited astronaut in mind, the robot’s arm and the hand are thought to be the finest ever designed, and represent a huge step forward in mechatronic design. Each arm contains over 150 sensors and built-in controllers and `knows’ how much pressure to apply when handling objects. The endoskeletal design of the arm houses thermal vacuum rated motors, harmonic drives, fail-safe brakes and 16 sensors per joint.

Sitting atop an articulated neck, Robonaut’s helmeted head holds two small colour cameras that deliver stereo vision to the operator.

To move the droid the operator performs the arm, head and hand motions, and a master-slave control mechanism duplicates these motions in Robonaut. Human posture can be tracked by directly placing mechanical, or magnetic sensors on the body joints of interest, although it is thought that the most intuitive method of control will be to use visual tracking of body markers or other non-contact methods like sonar, structured light, and machine vision.

Like many of NASA’s seemingly esoteric projects, its anticipated that the lessons learned from the Robonaut project will find spin-off industrial applications. As well as benefiting prosthetics research, the system is expected to be useful in a range of hazardous environments.

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