NASA Podcasts

R2 ready for Space Debut
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In space movies, robots are always nearby to help out when things get dangerous for our heroes. They hold off bad guys to allow an escape, act as a reliable copilot and sometimes just carry data tapes around the universe.

NASA's own new Robonaut is not quite as advanced as that, but it's hoped he will add a helping hand for astronauts living at the International Space Station.

Meet Robonaut 2, or just R2, an anthropomorphic robot destined to head to the International Space Station with the crew of shuttle Discovery during the STS-133 mission.

I've been working on the Robonaut project since about 2002 when I became a, a full-time employee and it was always this sort of distant goal that we're going to have a humanoid robot up in space and now we're going to see it happen.

R2 is not quite the completely independent machine shown to movie audiences in the last several decades.

But it's the most advanced humanoid robot ever taken into space. Although the robot is definitely experimental, its developers have grand hopes for it, as do the astronauts who would work with it.

Our ultimate goal is to send the robot EVA. Be able to set up work sites for the astronauts and take care of mundane, boring and dull tasks, that way the crew doesn't have to go through all the trouble to get in their spacesuits and take the risks of going outside.

Before it gets to go outside the station, though, there will be plenty of tests and lots of work inside the station to confirm R2 will work as intended.

We'll make sure everything survived launch, just do the basic checkouts, make sure the fingers work, each of the joints in the arms work, cameras, things like that.

Working inside the station, R2 is programmed to be a useful member of the crew, and one that doesn't have to sleep, eat food or drink water.

We'll move on to a task board that's been developed with buttons and switches and valves that are indicative of what the crew uses on a daily basis. We'd like to prove that the robot can interface with those items as well as the crew can.

That may not sound like much compared to the capabilities of fictional robots, but such steps are a large jump for R2's developers.

Producing a robot that can work with the same tools and within the same interfaces a human works with requires you to constrain the robot to a human size. Putting all the capability that we want in a human package has been very challenging. The hands specifically, getting all that finger motion and packaging everything in this size of a form is a very significant challenge.

There also were safety considerations since R2 will be working in an enclosed space with six other station residents.

The most difficult part about getting Robonaut ready for spaceflight has been our desire to have a robot that's fully functional and very capable, yet balancing that with the safety and the rigors of spaceflight, making durable as well as safe for the crew.

General Motors joined NASA in Robonaut's development in order to improve its own manufacturing techniques and other aspects of automotive development.

There are a lot of technologies in this robot that will enable us to build safer cars with more advanced features and better options and build them to be more reliable.

For the people behind some of the most famous fictional humanoids, C-3PO and R2-D2 in "Star Wars," the emergence of a real-life ancestor raises other questions.

Then we get into the interesting concept of what do people want from a robot? Does it need to be humanoid? Does it need to be the same size, should it be smaller so it doesn't dominate you and threaten you? Should it be bed-height size so it can look after you as you're getting older? Should it have big eyes so you think it's a baby and can relate to it?

I love to see robot technology advance like this, this is great.

This is fantastic. We don't need a robot, you could take me. How about that? I'm probably as bright as him. Well, maybe not.

While the actors will indeed stay behind on Earth, R2's mission is slated to begin in late 2010.

From NASA's Kennedy Space Center, I'm George Diller. › View Now