Robots Invade Kennedy Space Center

By ken_kremer
November 10, 2010
Filed under

Robonaut 2A with the Vehicle Assembly Building and Ares 1 Mobile Launcher in the background at the Kennedy Space Center.

Kennedy Space Center – Ken Kremer – Robots have invaded the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) as NASA prepares to launch Space Shuttle Discovery on the STS-133 assembly mission to the International Space Station (ISS). But fear not, these robots are human made and friendly to earthlings – at least for now.

The twin brother of Robonaut 2 – known as R2A – is standing guard at the KSC press site adjacent to the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB). That’s where I had the unique pleasure to meet him for an outdoors encounter under clear blue Florida skies. R2A was gazing intensely at launch Pad 39 A and shuttle Discovery where his sibling – Robonaut 2 – is set to meet his destiny and become the first humanoid robot in space. R2A is virtually identical to Robonaut 2.

Robonaut 2, also known as R2 or R2B, is stowed inside the “Leonardo” Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) which is the primary cargo loaded inside the shuttle’s payload bay.

Although R2 will initially inhabit Leonardo, he will eventually be moved and take up permanent residence inside the US built Destiny science research laboratory as a robotic assistant. The goal is for R2 and the ISS crew to work together shoulder to shoulder.

R2 will make history by becoming an official member of the ISS crew and the first non-human member to boot. The goal is to demonstrate just how well dexterous robots can operate in the zero g environment of space and how they can work to contribute to the maintenance and scientific output of the orbiting outpost.

Discovery awaits launch at Pat 39 A.

R2 is the most dexterously advanced robot on Earth. When R2 boards the station, the ISS will become the most advanced robotics lab in human history and serve as an ideal test bed for humans and robots working together to build a future of exploration and discovery.

“The chance to fly our robot to the ISS was a dream come true,” Ron Diftler told me in an interview at KSC. Diftler is NASA’s R2 project manager at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Tx.

“Current plans call for R2 to be unpacked and powered up in late January 2011. Crew interactions will start about a month later,” Diftler said. “The human form is intentional and we hope it should help to motivate kids to study science.”

The astronauts have been very supportive of the Robonaut project, according to Diftler and are eager to test its capabilities. Initially, R2 will be able to be powered on and put through its paces for about two hours at a time until the heat generated by the unit exceeds the stations cooling capacity to dissipate it.

“We hope that one day, after further upgrades and the addition of a lower body and legs that R2 will even be able to venture outside – without a spacesuit – and conduct EVA activities to assist spacewalking astronauts,” Diftler added. R2 would be perched on the stations backbone truss during EVA activities.

The Robonaut team hopes to eventually send R2 on a mission beyond earth orbit to destinations such as to the surface of the Moon, asteroids and one day even to the planet Mars.

R2 weighs some 300 pounds and was manufactured from nickel-plated carbon fiber and aluminum. It is equipped with human like arms and hands as well as four visible light cameras that provide stereo vision.

Robonaut 2A and Ron Diftler, NASA’s R2 project manager at the Johnson Space Center, meet and greet the media at a KSC press briefing for the STS1-133 mission. The cameras which provide the eyesight for R2A have twice the resolution of Hi-Def TV and are projected live on the TV monitor at rear.

The robot was developed in collaboration with GM, which had been working on an independent research program aimed at developing dexterous robots. To date over 40 US patents have been granted from the joint science research program.

“NASA and GM pooled their resources in 2007 and R2 was unveiled in February 2010,” according to Susan Smyth, GM Director of Research and Development. “With R2 we will demonstrate ground breaking technology that will also have real world applications as GM works to build better and safer cars.”

NASA originally intended for R2 to serve as a prototype unit to be used on Earth as a way to better understand what would be required to eventually send a robot to space. But when the R2 unit was completed, the results exceeded expectation and were so impressive that NASA decided to add the robot to the shuttles remaining payload manifest. STS-133 was identified as the mission of choice since R2 could be brought aloft inside Leonardo.

Crew of Shuttle Discovery’s STS-133 mission greet media and NASA personnel on October 28, 2010 ahead of targeted November 5, 2010 launch. Once on orbit, Robonaut 2 will join the six humans as the first non-human ISS crew member.

The joint NASA/GM team of engineers and scientists embarked on a crash program and worked around the clock in the intervening months to meet the shuttle flight deadline.

Some hardware changes then had to be made to qualify R2 for spaceflight. The outer skin was exchanged to meet NASA’s stringent flammability requirements; shielding was added to reduce electromagnetic interference; and processors were upgraded to deal with the radiation environment. The fans were replaced to reduce the noise level and the power was rewired to run on DC rather than AC.

At least for now, there are no official plans for a girlfriend for R2, top NASA officials said to me on background. The Cylons may have other intentions.

A key point is that R2 can accomplish real work with incredibly dexterous hands and an opposable thumb as I witnessed with my own eyes in a live action demonstration at KSC.

R2A will be watching his twin brother’s blast off to space live from the Kennedy Space Center.

The future is arriving fast with this impressive and imposing humanoid Robot. Stay tuned.

The Robonaut 2 – or R2 – joint collaborative team of NASA and GM at a press briefing at the Kennedy Space Center. The team has produced the most dexterously advanced robot in history. R2 is loaded aboard Discovery for delivery to the ISS by the STS 133 crew of humans.