Commander Dan Burbank works with Robonaut 2. The robot humanoid demonstrated its dexterity performing sign language. Credit: NASA TV
Robonaut 2 is one step closer to earning its keep on the International Space Station.
R2 – as the robot is called – got its first taste of real work on Wednesday. The crew and ground team had completed all its initial checkouts, and Tuesday installed heat sinks in both of the robot's forearms to allow it to better dissipate heat and work for longer periods of time.
The first humanoid robot in space was sent to the space station with the intention of eventually taking over tasks too dangerous or mundane for astronauts, and the first such task identified for it was monitoring air velocity. Astronauts onboard the space station generally have to measure the air flow in front of vents inside the station to ensure that none of the ventilation ductwork gets clogged or blocked. The task involves holding a gauge in front of vents in five different locations on the station and taking several measurements of the air flow every 90 days or so.
It's not exactly a job that requires a rocket scientist – or astronaut – to accomplish, but there are a few things that make it difficult. For one, the gauge has to be held very steady – a challenge for a human being bobbing up and down in microgravity. And the samples can be misleading if there's another source of air flow in the area – such as a human being's breath.
A fisheye lens attached to an electronic still camera was used to capture this image of Robonaut 2 humanoid robot during another system checkout in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Credit: NASA
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Holding still and not breathing happen to be two areas that R2 excels in, so in some ways the robot is a natural choice for the work. Which is why Commander Dan Burbank handed the tools over to the robot (after powering it up and letting the ground controllers command it into position) on Wednesday to let it give the task a try.
The robot successfully gave the team watching from the ground two good samples taken in front of a ventilation diffuser in the Destiny Laboratory. It wasn't able to work through the samples as quickly as an astronaut could, and without legs (which are in development on the ground) it could only take samples in one area, rather than all five. But back in Mission Control, the effort was definitely counted as a success.
"I was pretty impressed with the robot's ability," said Mari Forrestel, the Environmental and Thermal Operating Systems flight controller analyzing the data R2 sent down. "I think we have some tweaking to do, some fine tuning, but we are definitely looking forward to the robot helping us."
Ron Diftler, the Robonaut 2 project manager, agreed.
"We're definitely on the right path," he said. "Robonaut 2 had a chance to use its first tool today. This experiment is the first step in the robot relieving the crew of every dull task and, in time, giving the crew more time for science and exploration."