NASA robotics engineer Sandeep Yayathi works on Robonaut 2, or R2, a humanoid robot built and designed at Johnson Space Center in Houston. As a robotics engineer, Sandeep Yayathi is developing a battery-based power system that will allow the Robonaut 2, now aboard the International Space Station, to move about freely without having to be plugged into the ISS power grid.

NASA Tech Briefs: What does the R2 look like? What kind of tools are on it? What is it made up of?

Sandeep Yayathi

Sandeep Yayathi: The Robonaut is a humanoid robot, so it’s a robot that looks very much like a person. It has two arms, similar degrees of freedom, and some complex dexterous hands. The hands are also very similar to what we have on our arms. The goal is for the Robonaut to be able to interface with the same interfaces that the crew uses now, and be able to handle the same tools that they use in orbit. Currently we have an (intra-vehicular activity) IVA version of the Robonaut, so it’s inside the space station mounted to a stanchion that the crew’s been working with. Looking forward to the future, we are currently working on a battery-based power system, as well as a pair of legs. Not so much legs like you and I have, but similar to the arms, with specialized end effectors for grabbing on to fixtures, tracks, and hand rails available on the station. This will set the stage for eventually having a robot that goes EVA [extra-vehicular activity].

NTB: What are its functions? What tasks can it perform?

Yayathi: Right now we are constantly developing new tasks and augmenting his abilities as time goes on. Controls engineers down here on the ground are working on tasks that eventually get tested on orbit. Right now, on orbit, we have a task panel positioned in front of the robot that has a whole host of different switches, buttons, and connectors that are found all around the station. So we’re working on vision recognition and the robot’s ability to manipulate those objects.

In addition, we’ve been identifying various other tasks that the crew has to do that are sort of monotonous and take up time that could be otherwise spent doing science. One of which more recently was checking flow out of some of the air filters on the station. That’s something that the crew has to go and do with the meter, and we recently had the robot hold that meter in front of the air filters and pipe that video data back to the ground for analysis. So hopefully, eventually, the robot can be doing some of these tasks, moving around the station without the crew in the loop to basically offload those monotonous tasks that are really well suited for a robot.

NTB: Is the team impressed with the robot’s ability?

Yayathi: I think that the station program and NASA as a whole are pumped about the potential that the robot has in impacting how we do operations on station and how we utilize crew time appropriately. The astronauts only have so much time during the day, and there’s a whole lot of science that we want to be doing up there. The robot is very electromechanically capable. It’s a work in progress, but we do have high hopes for it. People that are interfacing with it on the ops side are excited about the potential it has. Every day, people are coming up with new tasks that they would love Robonaut to take over in the future.

NTB: How else can the Robonaut make it easier for the team?

Yayathi: Our goal is eventually to have a robot that goes EVA and can withstand the harsh environment of space, where it can really make a big impact. Astronauts, when they go EVA, usually have some main goals that require a human in the loop to manage these tasks and more complicated procedures and maneuvers. But in order to get to a work site, there are a lot of things that have to happen first. A lot of times, they have to spend a good portion of their EVA setting up foot restraints and fixtures to get out there, before they can actually do the real task that they set out to accomplish. Having a robot out there could be advantageous: you would be able to have it go and do all these setup tasks ahead of time and really optimize the time while the crew members out there. We’re blessed with the brains that we have and the abilities that we have as humans, and we want to take advantage of those when we’re out there in the dangerous environment of space.