Contrary to public opinion, NASA is more focused than ever before. With multiple rovers and probes surveying our solar system, a newer generation of space telescopes and spacecraft under development, and several projects focused on developing robotic devices and machines to be used in space, NASA is back.
In this article, we will summarize three of NASA’s most intriguing projects in robotics that not only stand to benefit science and space exploration, but also provide benefits to people on Earth in a variety of capacities.
Developed in collaboration with General Motors (GM), NASA’s Robonaut is already being tested in space on the International Space Station. The Robonaut is a dexterous humanoid that is designed to take over many of the repetitive tasks that often burden and waste the time of human astronauts. The ultimate goal of the Robonaut is to perform spacewalks that involve tasks that fall outside of the spacecraft or space station. This would be greatly beneficial given the high risk spacewalks pose to the lives of human astronauts.
The Robonaut 2 (R2) is NASA’s second generation humanoid. The R2 is four times faster than the R1, is significantly more dexterous, and can use the same tools astronauts use, eliminating the need for specialized tools the R1 required. Here’s a detailed breakdown of the R2’s advances taken from NASA’s Robonaut homepage:
- Optimized overlapping dual arm dexterous workspace
- Series elastic joint technology
- Miniaturized 6-axis load cells
- Redundant force sensing
- Ultra-high speed joint controllers
- Extreme neck travel, and
- high resolution camera and IR systems.
Here’s one of the first video demonstrations of the Robonaut 2 taken on the ISS:
Not to be confused with Nintendo’s infamous Power Glove (sorry, I couldn’t resist), the RoboGlove is a Robonaut spin-off designed to help astronauts strengthen their grip in space, which is complicated by the limitations a spacesuit’s glove places on an astronaut’s ability to use their hand to flex and grasp. The Robonaut features flexible tendons, sensors that measure the wearer’s applied strength of grip, and the ability to assist or resist movement. According to Lyndon Bridgwater, a senior robotics engineer at Johnson, “Due to pressurization of [an astronaut’s space]suit, it’s like squeezing a balloon every time you move your hand. That causes extreme fatigue and even injury. We’re looking at putting the hardware and actuator in the glove itself to provide muscle augmentation for the hand.”
The RoboGlove will in time have several civilian and commercial applications, helping workers in a variety of manufacturing and construction settings. In addition, NASA already has plans to work with medical device manufacturing companies to help them develop similar assistive technology for people with disabilities or injury. Below is a detailed breakdown of the RoboGlove’s functions taken from NASA’s RoboGlove homepage:
- Actuators are embedded into the upper portion of the glove to provide grasping support to human fingers
- Pressure sensors are incorporated into the fingertips of the glove to detect when the user is grasping a tool
- Synthetic tendons automatically retract, pulling the fingers into a gripping position and holding them there until the sensor is released
The X1 is an exoskeleton NASA is developing in partnership with the Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC). While NASA’s plan for the X1 is to help astronauts remain healthy in space, on Earth the X1 can help restore the movement of limbs in patients suffering from paraplegia or stroke.
Two health related issues astronauts experience in space is muscular atrophy and a decrease in bone density due to the absence of gravity. Although astronauts spend approximately 2 hours exercising everyday, deeper space missions will require more advanced technology, like the X1, that are more effective in maintaining muscle and bone-density health. Specifically, X1 offers assistive-power for added strength when lifting or walking and pressurized inhibitors to help mimic the force of gravity.
Together, these three technologies NASA is working to perfect represent the future of space exploration that will also lead to the creation of the tools and machines needed here on Earth to assist workers and to help individuals suffering from injury or physical disability. And with projects like these, NASA’s relevance as a driving force behind technological and scientific innovation certainly looks bright.