Text Size

Human Robotic Systems: Reaching Out and Touching the Future
astronaut and Canadarm 2
Human Robotic Systems can involve interaction between EVA astronauts and large robotic systems like Canadarm 2.
›  Link to larger image

Robonaut 2 (R2) is one of NASA’s advanced robotic systems developed to aid humans in routine, tedious and sometimes dangerous work in space. R2 is the next generation dexterous robot, developed through the Space Act Agreement between NASA and General Motors.
Recall that well-known adage, as branded by poet Robert Browning, that to achieve anything worthwhile, a person’s reach should exceed their grasp.

In space, extending the human touch – be it in low Earth orbit or to the Moon, Mars, and asteroids – is bolstered by a fusion of astronaut and robot skills.

“We’re working on human robotic systems, not either or, but robots that make a crew more effective,” said Bill Bluethmann at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston, Texas.

Approaching 25 years of robotics work, Bluethmann is the Human Robotic Systems Project Manager at JSC.

Finesse Factor

NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist is cultivating new sets of human robotics systems under its Space Technology Program.

As Bluethmann pointed out, “A big part of that is doing in-space work,” such as designing lengthy robot arms that can stretch out and grapple an asteroid.

“Giving astronauts a ‘finesse factor’ to safely work around a space object demands different approaches, given an asteroid’s micro-gravity condition,” Bluethmann said. “Making use of a robotic arm to anchor a piloted excursion vehicle to an asteroid is under study, as is positioning an astronaut over the asteroid to enable up-close-and-personal study.”

Leading edge custom motors and motion control technology is an enabling factor in tightly packaging robotic arms. “We’re able to embed a lot of smarts in the joints,” Bluethmann explained, “rather than running long and heavy wires back to some central spot.”

Shoulder to Shoulder

Designing integrated human robotic systems relies upon three main disciplines: mechanical, electrical, and software engineering. “We work shoulder to shoulder. The tools have gotten better and we have put together great teams,” Bluethmann said.

Another task of human robotic systems is to alleviate the things that astronauts don’t necessarily want to do. “We call those the dull, dangerous and dirty duties,” Bluethmann added. Setting up or tearing down a worksite, even checking a spacecraft’s air flow, he said, is checklist labor that’s perfect for a robot.

An added robot responsibility would be to predict what the next tool an astronaut requires. Once again, robots would work with humans in a complementary way to reduce the burden, or take over repetitive toil, or help mitigate risk.

“We’re not building robots to compete with the crew, but to really make them more productive,” Bluethmann said. The International Space Station has become an ideal place to test-bed human robotic systems, such as the recently installed Robonaut 2, fulfilling a 15 year dream to put a humanoid robot into space.

Melding the human brain with its ability to advise, with smart robots – but also have robots smart enough to ask for help – “is a very powerful approach,” Bluethmann observed.


Work is also ongoing to develop a “hands-free” jetpack.

That device would evolve from NASA’s Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue (SAFER), a small, self-contained, propulsive backpack system used to provide free-flying mobility for a crewmember during spacewalks.

“As we move toward new missions, such as satellite repair, astronauts need to use their hands,” Bluethmann said. An advanced jetpack would encompass human robotic interfaces that would free the wearer’s hands, combining mobility with manipulation.

A big picture view for human robotic systems is one that involves not only teleoperation (operating a machine from afar), but also telepresence.

Telepresence makes use of technologies that allows a person to feel as if they were present, to give the appearance of being present, or to have an effect, via telerobotics, at a place other than their true location.

A telepresence reality helmet, for example, would pipe in what a distant robot is viewing. “As technologists, that’s one direction we want to go in. The ability to look through a robot’s eyes is very potent,” Bluethmann added.

National Robotics Initiative (NRI)

Human robotic systems for space can spur many applications on Earth.

“The work we’re doing at NASA in robotics translates to our economy back home,” Bluethmann said. “As we saw with computers, they didn’t replace us, they made us more productive. I’m anticipating, as we go into the next decade and beyond, we’re going to have more and more robotic-type machines that can offload work.”

Bluethmann points out that NASA is partnered with the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and other aligned agencies, in undertaking a National Robotics Initiative.

The goal of the NRI enterprise is to accelerate the development and use of robots in the United States that work beside or cooperatively with people.

“I see a new industry growing up around robots. I see it creating jobs and new opportunities, especially given the innovative nature of the U.S. population,” Bluethmann concluded. “For NASA, the idea is to look for inventive ideas for new robots that will make things better for what we’re doing in space…as well as back here on Earth.”