DIY Podcast: Robots Demo Audio Clips Transcript
 
NASA robotic systems engineer Fernando Zumbado discusses robots and how NASA uses robots. The following text is the transcript of Robots audio clips.

Fernando Zumbado: 1-a. A robot is a machine. It has electronic components to help it interact with its environment. It usually has sensors that process information about its environment, and then a response to that sensory input. It can also respond to commands from people.

2-a. The most amazing thing about robots is their versatility. You can design a robot to do almost anything that you would like. You can also expose it to very, very extreme environments. For example, you can send an ROV -- a remotely operated vehicle -- to the bottom of the ocean to look at the remains of the Titanic shipwreck. And that's something that people wouldn't be able to do because of the extreme pressures and the extreme cold that you see at the bottom of the ocean. You can also do very accurate things and very delicate things with robots that people can't do. So the versatility of robots is essentially limited by the ability and the imagination of the engineers that make those robots.

3-a. Robots can do a lot of things that people can't. For example, they don't get tired. So they don't need to take a rest. They don't need to eat. So they can do tasks that are very boring over and over again very efficiently and very accurately. They can also be exposed to very dangerous environments, like the core of a nuclear generator. You can expose them to all that radiation without harming a person. You can send them to the depths of an ocean and explore without putting people at risk. So since there's no human element directly involved with the robot itself, you can put it in a very different environment than you can send people.

4-a. You have the mechanical hardware that composes the structure of the robot and the actuators. You have the electronic components, which are all the circuit boards, all the chips, the processors, the cables that power those motors. You have sensors that help the robot detect things in its environment and interact with its environment. And you also have the software that controls the robot itself. So you need all four of those components to interact together in harmony in order for the robot to function properly.

5-a. You can power a robot with a battery, and there are various chemistries for batteries. You can plug them directly into your wall. And you can power them through the wall. And there are those commercial vacuum cleaners that are about the size of a disk that you put on a station. You recharge the battery through the wall, but then when it actually performs its job it is using its internal power.

6-a. For deep space probes, we need something beefier. The solar arrays that are on some satellites do not work when you're in the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn as well as they do here on Earth because you're so far from the sun. So what you use is a device called an RTG. It's a radioisotope thermoelectric generator. And what it does is it takes a radioactive element and uses the heat generated from that radioactive decay to produce electricity. So you can have a robot with functioning power very far away from the sun.

7-a. Robots are usually controlled through a computer or a chip that has the information necessary to perform its functions.

8-a. When you are trying to control the robot -- as a person, as an operator -- you can control it with a direct link like a cable and a joystick. You can control it through something that's called telepresence where there's a physical separation between the operator and the robot. And you can use radio waves to send your signals to the robot. There are some problems that happen when the distance is too large. There's a finite time for the signal from the operator to get through to the robot. And it's called time delay. And you have to be very wise as an operator to know when the time delay is going to cause problems to your robot. But you can also have automation. And you can provide the robot with sensors and some computer algorithms to detect things in its environment and interact with its environment without having the need to constantly monitor that robot.

9-a. NASA has three main types of robots. There are the planetary robots that actually descend to the surface, sort of like the Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity. There are also the Viking missions back in the '70s. There are also the manipulator robots like the space shuttle arm and the space station arm. There's also a new robot called SPDM -- Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator -- that's on the station. And then there are the space probes, which go out into the far reaches of the solar system. Or you can have them orbiting the Earth, sort of like weather satellites that look at Earth and tell us more about what's happening to our planet.

10-a. NASA uses robots quite often. When there's a space shuttle mission that brings a piece of the International Space Station for assembly, there's a handoff that happens from the space shuttle arm that picks that module from the cargo bay and hands it to the space station arm. Then the space station arm will take it and position it for assembly. So there are two robots involved there. And we also have the deep space probes that orbit Saturn, for example, and they help us discover things with its rings. We have the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars. We can have near-Earth robots, sort of like the Hubble Space Telescope that helps us explore the cosmos. Or we have weather satellites that help us understand what's happening here on Earth. So NASA has a variety of robots, and they get used a lot more often than people realize.

11-a. My favorite science fiction robot is R2-D2. And I love how R2-D2 is extremely brave, and he always knows what to do, and he's always sticking up for what he believes is right. So, eventually I would like for robots to be as smart and brave as R2-D2 was.

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