Press Release

Humans, Robots Work Together to Test ‘Spacewalk Squad’ Concept

By SpaceRef Editor
July 2, 2003
Filed under ,

Humans and robots worked side-by-side this summer at
NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston to evaluate the
concept of using human-robotic teams to improve the
productivity of astronauts working outside the International
Space Station, other space vehicles, or on the surface of
other planets.

“We like to think of these as ‘EVA (extravehicular activity)
squads’ – humans outside the spacecraft in space suits,
dexterous robots, humans inside the spacecraft or on the
ground tele-operating robots, free-flying robots, giant crane
robots – all working together to get the job done,” said Test
Conductor Dr. Robert Ambrose of the JSC Engineering
Directorate’s Automation, Robotics and Simulation Division.

“The EVA work done now uses two astronauts, backing each
other up, with help from astronauts inside and a large
robotic arm outside,” said Ambrose, who also manages the
Robonaut Project that supplied two dexterous humanoid robots
for the test. “To get more work done during the six to eight
hours the astronauts have in their suits, we want them each
to be their own team leader. When they come out of the
airlock they each form their own human-robot squads and work
in parallel, getting twice as much done.” The new Robonaut, a
collaborative effort with the Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency, also known as DARPA, has been under
development at JSC for the last several years.

Astronaut Nancy Currie stepped into an advanced concept space
suit to participate in the test as the squad leader. The task
at hand was to assemble an aluminum truss structure. Currie
and her Robonaut companions assembled the truss several
times, significantly cutting the time required to complete
the task on each run.

After the structure was assembled, the team installed
electrical cable, with the Robonauts taking the cable out of
its package and routing it around the truss to Currie, who
connected it to the truss using a standard EVA electrical
connector and wire ties. To wrap up the test series, they
simulated what would happen if a hazardous chemical
contaminated Currie’s space suit, with Currie using a special
brush to remove the make-believe chemical and then handing
the brush to a Robonaut to clean the places she couldn’t.

Currie wore an advanced-concept space suit designed for use
on other planets. The suit is half as heavy as a standard
Shuttle Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) and easier to
maneuver in Earth’s gravity. The “I-suit,” developed for NASA
by ILC Dover, Inc., is one of several different advanced
space suit assemblies being used to compare the relative
merits and liabilities of various suit components.

“I think it went great,” Currie said of the test series. “In
the next five years, when we think about EVA, we’re going to
think in terms of sending out squads. If you look at an EVA
timeline, about 20 percent is worksite setup and closeout,
getting tools ready and managing tethers.” Robonauts could
help reduce that time, making an astronaut more productive or
cutting the amount of time the astronaut has to be outside in
a hazardous environment.

“On the Station, you could send a Robonaut or two out early
to set up the worksite, or leave them out late to clean up.
They could be stored in an outside garage and used as a quick
response mechanism, or to respond to hazardous chemicals,
such as the ammonia used in the Station’s cooling system,”
Currie explained, noting that after a trip to Mars, the crew
will need time to adjust to the partial gravity environment
on the planet. “You could be productive from the first day by
sending robots out as scouts while letting the crew adapt to
the Mars environment.”

The Robonauts, with their highly dexterous hand design, can
work with the same tools humans use. For these tests, the
Robonauts used standard EVA tools, such as ratchet wrenches,
retractable tethers and socket caddies. In the future, a
Robonaut could work like a nurse in an operating room, where
an EVA crewmember, like a doctor, would ask the nurse for a
particular tool and have it placed in his or her hand.

Robonauts of the future could be used for a variety of jobs,
including assembly of orbital telescopes, remote Earth
observatories and interplanetary transit vehicles, all of
which could require work beyond low-Earth orbit.

“We’re looking at what new machines we need to build and how
we need to team them up to help the astronauts get more work
done,” Ambrose said. “The technology could be ready for
International Space Station jobs in the next three to four
years.”

Learn more about NASA on the Internet at www.nasa.gov

SpaceRef staff editor.