The automotive industry has faced hardships in recent times, but it can and will survive by renewing itself through innovation. After enduring a $14.6 billion loss in 2008, Ford reported a $2.7 billion profit in 2009 and applied for a total of 119 patents for the 2010 Ford Fusion and Fusion Hybrid. Clearly, now more than ever, inventive thinking is key to any automaker’s success. In the process, automotive engineers have not gone it alone — collaborations with various scientific disciplines continue to inspire and reinvent the design of safer and more efficient vehicles.

Aerospace and Automotive Partnerships

Robonaut 2, or R2, has the potential to help GM create safer cars and manufacturing plants, while also helping assist NASA astronauts on dangerous space missions.
Automotive and aerospace engineers have long fostered a fruitful relationship, stemming back to NASA’s first manned space missions. In the 1960s, General Motors (GM) worked with NASA to develop navigation systems for the Apollo missions, while Ford was instrumental in building Mission Control for the historic Moon landings. The collaborative partnership between members of these two industries remains strong today.

NASA’s Johnson Space Center (Houston, TX) and GM recently teamed up through a Space Act Agreement to build a humanoid robot, dubbed Robonaut 2, or R2. The robot’s hands are capable of performing more complicated work than previous humanoid machines, and it is able to work safely alongside humans to serve both space and Earth applications. GM plans to implement the robot in manufacturing plants to help decrease health and safety risks for workers. Meanwhile, NASA plans to use the robot to assist astronauts during hazardous space missions.

“For GM, this is about safer cars and safer plants,” said Alan Taub, GM’s vice president for global research and development. “When it comes to future vehicles, the advancements in controls, sensors, and vision technology can be used to develop advanced vehicle safety systems. The partnership’s vision is to explore advanced robots working together in harmony with people, building better, higher quality vehicles in a safer, more competitive manufacturing environment.”

The idea of using dexterous, human-like robots capable of using their hands to do intricate work is not new to the aerospace industry. The original Robonaut, a humanoid robot designed for space travel, was built by the software, robotics, and simulation division at NASA Johnson in a collaborative effort with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) ten years ago.

Goodyear and NASA partnered to create an air- less “spring tire” with 800 load-bearing springs to navigate over rough terrain on the Moon and, someday, possibly Earth.
In another example of collaboration that has the potential to benefit both Earth and space, Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company and NASA’s John H. Glenn Research Center (Cleveland, OH) announced the development of a Moon tire to transport heavy lunar vehicles over longer distances. This non-pneumatic “spring tire” includes 800 load-bearing springs that lend durability and fuel savings. Some speculate that the design could someday benefit Earth-roving vehicles because it consumes less energy than a conventional tire and will not blow out if punctured, making it suitable for off-road applications on Earth.

The aerospace and automotive engineers at Ford Motor Co. and United Space Alliance (USA) use the same kind of virtual reality animation software to evaluate real-life scenarios involving their vehicles. While USA engineers use the technology to track and characterize launch debris during ascent, Ford uses it to test the overall feel of a vehicle before building a prototype. The two organizations recently pooled their expertise, as USA advised Ford on how to improve response time to create a more realistic environment, while Ford assisted USA with human simulation software for simulation of spacecraft repairs.

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the March, 2010 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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