Canadian Manufacturing

NASA and GM collaborate on space robot

Humanoid R2 could change future GM manufacturing operations

DETROIT—Robonaut 2, better known as R2, has been powered up for the first time aboard the International Space Station (ISS) after a few months of hibernation.

The robot, developed jointly by scientists and engineers at General Motors (GM) and NASA, is the first humanoid robot in space. It was delivered to the ISS aboard the last flight of the space shuttle Discovery.

Detroit-based GM says R2 technology could be adapted to help make its plants safer because the dexterity and sensitivity of the R2’s hands could potentially assist in a variety of manufacturing operations.

R2 will be initially deployed on a fixed-pedestal inside the ISS.

Engineers are still working on a leg for R2, so it can climb through the corridors of the Space Station and other upgrades that will allow it to head into the vacumn of space.

Lower body assemblies are also being developed to propel R2 across Lunar and Martian terrain.

A four wheeled rover called Centaur 2 is being evaluated at the 2010 Desert Field Test in Arizona as an example of these future lower bodies for R2.

Like its predecessor Robonaut 1 (R1), R2 is capable of handling a range of electric vacumn aspiration (EVA) tools and interfaces. But R2 moves more than four times faster than R1, is more compact and dexterous and includes a deeper and wider range of sensing.

The R2 system’s overlapping dual arms optimizes its workspace. Elastic joint technology, extended finger and thumb travel, miniaturized 6-axis load cells, redundant force sensing, ultra-high speed joint controllers, extreme neck travel and high resolution camera and IR systems are all packed into it’s dextrous, humanoid form.

And it uses the same tools as astronauts, so no specialized tools are required.

One advantage of a humanoid design is that R2 can take over simple, repetitive or especially dangerous tasks. Because it’s approaching human dexterity, tasks such as changing out an air filter can be performed without modifications to the existing design.

“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,” said Alan Taub, GM’s vice-president for global research and development.

The original Robonaut, a humanoid robot designed for space travel, was built by the software, robotics and simulation division at NASA’s Johnson Space Centre in Houston, TX. in a collaborative effort with the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency 10 years ago.

GM engineers on site at Johnson Space Center have worked with GM manufacturing engineers at the automakers Technical Centre in Warren, Mich. to develop safety technologies for GM vehicles.

“Our challenge today is to build machines that can help humans work and explore in space,” said Mike Coats, Johnson’s center director. “Working side by side with humans, or going where the risks are too great for people, machines like Robonaut will expand our capability for construction and discovery.”

GM manufacturing engineers also plan to use the findings to help develop future technologies that can make plants safer for workers at GM’s global manufacturing facilities.

NASA and GM have a long partnership history, starting in the 1960s with the development of the navigation systems for the Apollo missions. GM also played a role in the development of the Lunar Rover Vehicle, the first vehicle used on the moon.

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