“Over the years, I’ve asked people, ‘If you had a robot, what would you want it to do for you?’” said Rob Ambrose, principal investigator for NASA’s Game Changing Development Program and chief of the Software, Robotics, and Simulation Division at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. When he asks astronauts, they usually tell him they want the robot to do chores.

The International Space Station (ISS) has quickly become an ideal testbed for developing some of the world’s most advanced robotics technology — technology that is on the cutting edge in space exploration and ground research. But Ambrose points out that the ISS also currently hosts an array of state-of-the-art robotics projects, including human-scale dexterous robots and free-flying robots. These projects are not only enabling a future of human-robot space missions, but are promising extraordinary benefits on Earth.

So, whether the task calls for measuring the airflow from a filter or navigating the risks of an emergency spacewalk, there are multiple “chores” in space travel that suit robots far better than humans.


The idea behind the original Robonaut and the current Robonaut 2 (R2) was to build a humanoid robot that could assist astronauts in completing tasks in which another pair of hands would be helpful, or to perform jobs either too dangerous for crew-members or too mundane for them to spend time on. R2 is designed to be a robust, rugged, entirely electric humanoid robot capable of operating in degraded or damaged human-engineered environments.

Rather than balancing or walking on its legs, Robonaut 2 has end effectors (its feet) that can grasp handrails and other built-in capture points to move from worksite to worksite or stay in one place.

R2 has been onboard the ISS since February 2011. It is the first humanoid robot in space, and although its primary job is demonstrating to engineers how dexterous robots behave in space, the hope is that, through upgrades and advancements, it could one day venture outside the station to help space-walkers make repairs or additions to the station.

R2 powered up for the first time in August 2011. Since then, robotics engineers have tested R2 on ISS, completing tasks ranging from velocity air measurements to handrail cleaning — simple but necessary tasks that require a great deal of crew time. R2 also has a task board on which to practice flipping switches and pushing buttons, and has been controlled by station crew-members on multiple occasions through the use of virtual reality gear.

According to NASA Game-Changing Development Program manager, Steve Gaddis, the team is hard at work teaching R2 new skills for the ISS. “We are currently working on teaching him how to look for handrails and avoid obstacles.” The challenge is how to teach R2 new skills from the ground when the robot is on station, all of which is done through software. For hardware additions to R2, such as new legs, astronauts must be trained in how to perform “surgery” on the robot.

R5 implements improved electronics, actuators, and sensing capabilities from earlier generations of NASA humanoid robots.

A realistic version of parts of the ISS is maintained on the ground in order to create scenarios in which R2 would be called upon as an astronaut assistant. Astronauts may have to spend an entire day performing tasks and experiments, and could not get to some of the tasks by the end of the day. R2 could collect tools the astronauts would require to perform tasks for the next day while the astronauts slept.

Building on prior experience designing R2, the NASA Johnson team designed and built the next generation of humanoid robot — R5, also known as Valkyrie — that implements improved electronics, actuators, and sensing capabilities from earlier generations of JSC humanoid robots. It also features more humanoid legs, enabling it to move more easily in a variety of environments.

R5 is designed to work on a planetary surface such as Earth, Mars, or the Moon. When upgrading to R5 from R2, the team faced the challenge of making everything lighter — R2’s body and legs weigh close to 600 pounds, and R5 weighs about 300 pounds. The need for lightweighting is primarily because it will be running off of battery power. To run untethered off a battery, every pound means shorter battery life.

Robots such as R5 can serve as scouts, providing advanced maps and soil samples, and beginning work on the infrastructure that astronauts would need. The crew that follows would then be much more prepared for the exploration ahead. This human-robotic partnership will allow Mars surface missions to be conducted safely by a smaller crew without sacrificing mission plans and results. Humans and robots exploring the solar system together will provide greater results than either could achieve alone.

R5 features more-humanoid legs, enabling it to move more easily in a variety of environments.

Robotic Mining

The goal of NASA’s Human Robotic Systems (HRS) project is to build robots that help humans explore. Said Bill Bluethman, project manager for the Resource Prospector at Johnson Space Center, “It can be the kind of robots that do missions before astronauts that enable future exploration. It can be working shoulder to shoulder with astronauts during a mission, and it can be cleaning up after. It has a very broad set of areas where we can apply this work, but the ultimate goal is to make human exploration more effective.”

One of those robots is the Resource Prospector (RP), a small rover designed to explore the poles of the Moon. RP aims to be the first mining expedition on another world. Using a suite of instruments to locate elements from a lunar polar region, the rover is designed to excavate volatiles such as hydrogen, oxygen, and water from the Moon. The ultimate goal is to look for water. Said Bluethman, “We’ve had recent missions — orbital missions and impact missions — that have shown that there is, in fact, water at the poles of the Moon. The goal of this mission is really to touch it, process it, understand just how much it is horizontally across the surface as well as what it looks like subsurface.”

The RP is basically a prototype of a robot NASA wants to sent to the north or south pole of the Moon, according to RP design engineer, Mason Markee. “One of the big challenges with this project was trying to build a robot that worked here on Earth so that we could do our performance testing here, but fit the size build that we wanted to go on a rocket to be able to get to the Moon. This robot represents the size of the real rover that we want to send to the Moon. We also wanted to tackle a lot of the aspects that you need to go to the Moon — working in a vacuum, working in extreme temperature differentials, so it’s really hot in the Sun, really cold in the shadows. We started tackling some of those technologies so that the thermal properties of this robot are very similar to the one that we want to send to the Moon eventually.”

The Resource Prospector prototype searches for a buried sample tube at the Johnson Space Center rock yard. (NASA)

Free-Flying Assistant

Remotely operated robots can complement astronauts by performing work under remote supervision by humans from a space station, spacecraft, habitat, or even from Earth. Today, astronauts on the ISS not only conduct science activities, but also perform a variety of tasks required for ISS housekeeping and inflight system maintenance.

The remote monitoring and operation of many ISS systems by ground control has become an accepted practice during the past decade for certain ISS tasks. Other types of robots, particularly free-flyers, can perform a greater variety of tasks. These tasks include routine, repetitive, or simple but long-duration work.

Artist’s concept of the Astrobee robotic free-flyer.

Astrobee, scheduled to fly in 2017, will build upon technology and lessons learned from the Smart Synchronized Position Hold, Engage, Reorient, Experimental Satellite (Smart SPHERES) robot. Designed at NASA’s Ames Research Center, the 12" cube will be remotely operated by astronauts in space or by mission controllers on the ground, and will perform a variety of intra-vehicular activities (IVA) such as operations inside the ISS. These tasks include interior environmental surveys (e.g., sound level measurement), inventory, and mobile camera work.

Chris Provencher, Astrobee’s project manager, said the team is planning to put radio-frequency identification (RFID) tags on every item onboard ISS, so that they can be found if they are lost, as many have been already. Astrobee also could help maintain the station by tracking down items that have floated away from their proper places. Astrobee will have video cameras that allow it to serve as a remotely operated mobile camera platform that may be used for localization and navigation. Propulsion is likely to be electric motor-driven fans. Astrobee will also include a perching arm to grab ISS handrails, which will allow it to hold position without using its propulsion system.






The Astrobee free-flying robot

Meet R5: Valkyrie, NASA’s latest humanoid robot