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This month marks the launch of NASA’s first human-like “Robonaut,” a robot built expressly to work with astronauts on the International Space Station. Part Star Wars Droid and part virtual reality game, humanoid robots could change the way we explore the galaxy. We examine the evolution of robotics in space.
- Nic Radford NASA Deputy Project Manager for Robonaut
- Roger D. Launius Curator, Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum; co-author, "Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution and Interplanetary Travel" (Johns Hopkins University Press)
MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. It's Tech Tuesday. From the intrepid Mars rovers to the space station's robotic arm, robots are already helping mankind map the universe. But this month marks the launch of the first humanoid robot in space. Think C3PO's physique with R2D2's ability to fix thinks. NASA's 6-foot-five Robonaut has a gold-colored head, a tight-fitting white space suit and incredibly intricate hands. It's packed to board the space shuttle for a Nov. 30 liftoff and a ride to the international space station. Not only will the Robonaut help the astronauts there, it could help change the way we explore the galaxy and spawn new technology for use here on Earth.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's a Tech Tuesday conversation on robots and space. And joining us from studios at the Johnson's Space Center in Houston, Texas is Nic Radford, deputy project manager for NASA's Robonaut program. Nic, thank you very much for joining us.
MR. NIC RADFORDWell, thanks for having me.
NNAMDIYou, too, can join this conversation with your questions or comments at 800-433-8850. You can go to our website kojoshow.org. And at our website, you can link to NASA's Robonaut program to see pictures and a video of Robonaut. But again, if you'd just like to join the conversation, you can also send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or a tweet, @kojoshow. Nic Radford, can you describe this humanoid robot for us? What does it look like?
RADFORDWell, actually, it looks a like a suited astronaut of sorts. You know, it's kind a -- it's got two arms and a head and it's -- it has an upper body form that would be pretty recognizable if you were to see it. In fact, sometimes we have to convince people that they're not looking at a person inside of a suited astronaut. That they are in fact looking at a robot. And so sometimes we'll, you know, purposefully disassemble it just to prove to people that it's actually not a human inside a suit.
NNAMDILet's go from head to toe. Well, it doesn't have toes yet, but from head to waist. To waist. Describe...
RADFORDYeah. We're working on the toes, though.
NNAMDIDescribe Robonaut's eyes.
RADFORDActually, Robonaut has two pairs of stereo vision cameras. It's got an analog set just for standard NTSC cameras. But then it has a double high-definition gigabit Ethernet cameras that process all the machine vision algorithms for us. The analog cameras, we use for our virtual reality gear when a user is immersed in virtual reality. And then, finally, inside the head, it's got a infrared laser range finder called a Swiss Ranger that helps augment its depth perception that it also gets from the stereo vision.
NNAMDIIt has big muscle-bound arms, does Robonaut, and its claim to fame is its incredibly humanlike hands. With all...
NNAMDI...it would appear the same joints we have. Describe how they work.
RADFORDWell, the upper arm joints are a brushless DC motor sets connected to harmonic drives. And those biceps that you mentioned are, for the record, less than Arnold Schwarzenegger's biceps when he was at his maximum.
NNAMDIWay more than mine, though.
RADFORDYeah. They kind of modeled it a little after me. But I've...
RADFORD…lost a little of my physique in my age. But...
NNAMDII see. I'll take that as you said. (laugh)
RADFORDYeah. But the hands are also brushless DC motor drives, but they're intrinsically -- or extrinsically actuated a lot like your arm is, where you have muscles in your forearm that actuate tendons that pull on your fingers. We have a very similar topology where we have motor sets and tendons and conduits, which actually pull on our fingers. This helps us keep the size of the hand down. You know, intrinsic or intrinsic actuation where you actually place the motors and gearings in the fingers ultimately results in larger hands. And so keeping the hand size down was extremely important to us.
NNAMDIWhat's going on in Robonaut's body?
RADFORDWell, actually, the Robonaut's body is where its brains are, funny enough. We've got all of our computers that process all of our high-level commands and you know, it's got its -- on its body, it has it backpack power supply. And so, you know, it kind of has the guts of the safety architecture from a PowerPoint view embedded in there. And it's got some other motors for other ways and what not. But it's got a lot going on.
NNAMDIOperating Robonaut is like playing the ultimate virtual reality game in space.
NNAMDIExplain how someone wearing the controlled glove and helmet can operate Robonaut.
RADFORDSo we've got two operational paradigms. We -- the first one is more of an autonomous control methodology. And I'm sure we'll get into it. But that's the more -- that's the side that General Motors was interested in.
RADFORDSo we kind of developed that a lot. Prior to that, all of our Robonauts were controlled with VR gear as this one is as well or can be. And what happens is a user, someone who's gonna control the robot, dons virtual reality gear. They put on a headset and they put on some camera eyes. They put on some gloves. And they put on sensors that tracks the motion of their body. And that motion is translated into motion for the robot. And just as we started at the beginning of your show, the robot looks a lot like you and me, meaning that it's got arms and a head.
RADFORDSo it's really intuitive to map the control of a human who's operating the robot into the robot space. And so a novice controller can come in, put this virtual reality gear on and operate the robot just straight away doing very useful items. And the experience is so real that oftentimes if you have the robot, you know, if you have an operator driving the robot and the robot accidentally drops something, the operator will move their feet back (laugh) in anticipation of getting hit with the object. But the robot is 100 feet from the person.
NNAMDIOh, that's funny. (laugh)
NNAMDISo really -- oh yeah. It really starts to trick your brain on where you're actually at.
NNAMDIYou seem to think that you are, you yourself, have become the robot.
RADFORDAbsolutely. You look down. You have robot arms. You have robot hands. And if you -- and if you're controlling the robot for -- long enough, you, honestly, forget where you're sitting.
NNAMDICan Robonaut think for itself? How will it assess some fixed problems on the space station?
RADFORDSo, right, the stage that we're at right now with Robonaut is we're embedding a lot of reflexive behaviors in the system. From an artificial intelligence point of view, a lot of that high-level task planning is still done at the -- with the operator in the loop. What robots -- what Robonaut, in particular, is really good at is while he's performing a function or while the system is performing its task, it's able to evaluate -- you know, it's exteroceptive and proprioceptive items and forces that it sees and feels and hears and is able to make judgments on, you know, am I pushing to hard on this, do I need to invoke this safety system here. And so what it does is it's built up of all these behaviors that are able to kind of govern how it performs its actions.
NNAMDICan you talk a little about the artificial intelligence technology involved in all these?
RADFORDSure. So we have an architecture that's based on task planning, and that task planning, it -- based on the sensor feedback and the external stimuli that it gets it from its environment, it's able to determine, you know, the best mode of approaching an objective, you know, whether it needs to have a certain compliance, stiffness associated with manipulating an object. And so, you know, I have to be really honest with you, though. This is really the -- for -- all over the robotics community, this is one of the harder fields to incorporate and incorporate well into robotics architecture because, you know, I'm not gonna try to hide anything. The A.I. side of this robot is -- in terms of how developed the electromechanical architecture is, it's the least the developed, and it's the hardest. And so it's the further out from really being mainstream.
NNAMDINic Radford is deputy project manager for NASA's Robonaut program. He joins us from studios at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. We're inviting you to join the conversation with your questions or comments about Robonauts in space in general -- about robots in space in general and Robonaut, in particular. 800-433-8850. It's Tech Tuesday. What do you want to know? You can also go to our website, kojoshow.org, and see some video of Robonaut, or you can send us an e-mail to email@example.com or a tweet @kojoshow.
NNAMDIRobonaut will be deployed in three stages, it's my understanding, Nic, and first, it will remain stationary in the space station. Then, it will be allowed to move around and, finally, will be able to go outside and help with spacewalks. Can you explain the timeline, the benchmarks Robonaut has to meet to go on from one stage to the next?
RADFORDSure. So, as you mentioned, this first stage, we're flying to the space station aboard STS-133. It's been delayed once, but we're hopeful that it's gonna launch on Nov. 30th. That's at least when the first launch -- the next launch window opportunity begins. And right now, the robot is gonna be stationary. You know, this is a really big deal, launching the first humanoid to the International Space Station. So we've got to go through a lot of -- we've got to show that we're a capable system of operating safely in that environment.
RADFORDAnd so the robot, first, is going to be stationary, operating a task board that we've developed here on the ground, and so one of the -- one of our first things that we're looking at is we've been working with this robot for a really long time in a 1-G environment, and so we've proven out from an operational concept point of view, we've proven out its ability to work with people, to work alongside people safely, but we're really want to prove that out in a zero-G format.
RADFORDThings change in -- pretty significantly in zero G, and so, at first, we really just want to show that the system behaves as we expect in zero G. And so once we gain, you know, a certain comfort level doing that, then we're gonna fly up a mobility pack. And that mobility pack is gonna consist of a battery backpack with a biped set of legs or in a biped configuration, so that the robot can, quote and unquote, "walk" around the inside of the space station. And when we say walk, we mean kind of moving from grapple fixture to handrail, you know, as it translates around the space station.
RADFORDAnd so then that's when the robot really starts showing its utility to help the crew in their daily activities. And then so finally when we gain a comfort level with that, we'll probably looking at, you know, 24 months out from now. We're going to start flying up the necessary improvements. You know, there's a few things the robot is not qualified right now to go EVA, which is a space walk or go outside, and so we're gonna have to fly up a few upgrades in order to make the robot viable for the vacuum and the hazards of space.
NNAMDIEVA, of course, being extravehicular activity.
NNAMDIHere is Lynne in Saint Michaels, Md. Lynne, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
LYNNEHi. I was fortunate enough when I worked at Johnson Space Center to get a tour of the robotics lab, and I saw some really early designs of Robonaut. And my first reaction was, oh, my God, it looks like Boba Fett.
LYNNEI was wondering...
LYNNE...did you use "Star Wars" as an inspiration for its general looks?
RADFORDSo the -- you're referring to the R1 system, so we've got two versions of Robonaut right now. We've got the R1 systems that started circa '97, '98 that went through 2005, and then we've got the R2 systems that we started designing and planning in 2006, and then there -- and that's what we're presently using. But the look of the head, you know, I feel, was inspired from a Roman centurion armor, and that's probably where -- that's where Lucas and company probably got their inspiration for Boba Fett's helmet. So we didn't directly go after the "Star Wars" connection, you know? But it is kind of convenient that it looks like Boba Fett.
NNAMDIAnd it's hard to think that all of the technicians and engineers who were working on this don't also go to the movies.
RADFORDYeah. Exactly. And so, you know, it's, you know, subconsciously...
RADFORD...we've probably, you know, we might find our favorite robotic characters influencing our design, you know? And if you look at the present generation of helmet, the R2 helmet, you know, it looking a little bit like Master Chief from "Halo" may not be a coincidence either.
NNAMDILynne, thank you very much for your call.
LYNNEYou're welcome. Thank you.
NNAMDIYou too can call us, 800-433-8850. We're gonna take a short break. When we come back, we'll continue this Tech Tuesday conversation on robots in space. Taking your calls, 800-433-8850. E-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Join the conversation there. You can send us a tweet @kojoshow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIIt's Tech Tuesday. We're discussing robots in space with Nic Radford, deputy project manager for NASA's Robonaut Program. He joins us from studios at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas. Joining us now in our Washington studio is Roger Launius, senior curator with the National Air and Space Museum and co-author of "Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution and Interplanetary Travel." Roger, good to see you again.
MR. ROGER LAUNIUSThank you. It's a pleasure to be here.
NNAMDINic, let me go back to you for one second. The Robonaut project grew out of NASA's desire to be able to continue doing space works without the incredible expense and danger to human astronauts. Talk about how the project got started 15 years ago.
RADFORDSo, as you know, you know, space exploration, at least human space exploration is -- involves a lot of EVAs typically. You're outside building things. You're outside repairing things. And those EVAs, as you mentioned, they're incredibly expensive and they put the crew at risk, you know? It's hard to do space exploration without putting the crew at risk. So about 15 years ago, you know, NASA said, you know, how can we augment the productivity and the efficiency of an EVA? You know, we're never gonna be able to remove, an order we want to, the human element from the EVA, you know? They're the -- the humans are incredibly good at dealing with uncertainties in environments, you know? A human is an incredible, you know -- it has a shoulder-mounted, water-cooled supercomputer that can pretty much deal with any situation in terms of needing to say, hey, this isn't quite right. I need to do this. So, you need to keep that presence, but you need to augment their ability to do their job effectively.
RADFORDAnd so, you know, an EVA has a set amount of time. There's only a fixed amount of time that a user or an EVA astronaut is gonna be outside because of life support reasons. So if we could make better use of their time, you know, get rid of the mundane things that they do, like setting up a tool site, setting up a worksite, setting out the tools, carrying tools, holding something, you know, just all the little things that when two people on the ground work together, they take for granted, you know, the synergy, the work synergy that they create. You know, we said, we need to be able to create a robotic device that can augment the cruise ability to do an EVA better and more efficiently. Therefore, we are, you know, we need to look at these advanced robotics systems that will accomplish that.
RADFORDAnd so, the original design requirement for the robot was to create a robot that has the dexterity of a gloved astronaut and that was really the main driving requirement behind the first Robonaut system. And that fell into two parts. How would you control that? You know, from a design point of view, how do you create and assemble that system. And then two, from a control point of view, how do you control it. And so for the last 15 years, we've been investigating this and that's all culminated into this system that we just flew to the space station.
NNAMDIRoger Launius, one of the biggest benefits of Robonaut is that it will eventually be able to do space works, allow humans to avoid the danger of leaving the space station as Nic was just describing. Is that likely to change the role of humans in space exploration?
LAUNIUSOh, I don't think there's any doubt that it will. You know, the capability to send a robot outside and not put an astronaut in harm's way for at least as lengthy a period of time as they normally have to today, is a big step forward. And although this particular robot is -- doesn't have decision making capabilities, is basically controlled 100 percent by an operator, it offers an opportunity then to avoid some of the risks associated with EVAs, with space walks and not putting the astronauts at as much risk, although there's always some risk associated with space flight. It's a big deal.
NNAMDIHere's Michael in Woodbine, Md. Michael, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
MICHAELHi, Kojo. How are you today?
MICHAELGreat show. Long-time listener. My question was in regards to the design of the robot and why in particular it was modeled after the human form. Why a biped, for instance? Whereas, you know, free legs, triangles could be more stable in different scenarios. How did that, sort of, concepts come about, and was it a familiarity thing for humans the people that we're gonna be driving these robots or was it --- or were other models considered, I guess would be the...
RADFORDSure. Well, let me address holistically the design of the robot to be anthropomorphic. The -- it's -- when you're working with a robot, you're able to intuit its actions. You know, this robot -- this generation of robot was designed in particular to work shoulder to shoulder with people. And so, having an anthropomorphic form to it, you're more easily able to intuit its responses to you. When it's gonna hand you an object, you know exactly how it’s gonna hand you an object. You know, if it had seven arms, you know, that moved in really funky ways, although that maybe more efficient for certain tasks, you know, you're gonna, kind of, be a little apprehensive about working with that system because you don’t -- it's gonna give you an, you know, uncomfortable feeling of, you know, okay, I will like it to hand me a tool but how is it gonna hand me that tool? And so you’re gonna, kind of, be a little apprehensive about working with it.
RADFORDSecondly, when you're controlling the robot, it's a -- we have an entire infrastructure -- this entire world and the space station was built around systems that have two arms and, you know, a camera platform mounted right above the shoulders. And so when you're creating a robot to aid people in doing their job, it's actually a lot easier than to create a system that's able to just interface with the -- with all the existing hardware than it is to go and design a bunch of special hardware so that that Robot can use.
RADFORDFinally, with respect specifically to your question about bipedal motion in space, there -- the advantages of having two legs in space to translate with inside the space station allows us to be able to hold things with our arms. You're absolutely right. We could get by with one leg. And we could use our arms and our leg to kind of inch form along. But if you're able to -- but that's gonna severely limit what we could carry. And so in order to be able to have both use of your hands while you're translating, two legs made sense to us. Now, we could actually add three or four, but the added cost versus the benefit we receive, it just didn’t -- it wasn't a case for it.
NNAMDIMichael, thank you very much for your call. You too can call us if you have questions or comments about the developments around robots in space. The number is 800-433-8850. Michael, I didn’t know if you had a follow up.
MICHAELNo, thank you very much.
MICHAELThat was very, very informative. I appreciate it.
NNAMDIThank you. 800-433-8850 or go to our website, kojoshow.org. Do you think, Roger, that Robonaut can eventually take the place of astronauts on the space station?
LAUNIUSWell, it probably is not gonna take the place, but clearly, it’s got capabilities to enhance what they can do. Now, in the long distance future, I think we're gonna find that these kinds of robots are going to be enhanced with their --with positronic brains or whatever it might be that we can envision and allowing it to make decisions and undertaking activities in an autonomous way. We're not anywhere near there, yet. But even in the context of just the next ten years or so of the International Space Station, there's undoubtedly going to be some advancement. And let me add a little bit to what was just said a moment ago about the anthropomorphic figure of Robonaut. Not only are there good engineering and human factors reasons for perhaps building it to look like the torso of a human with arms and a head and all that sort of stuff. We also tend to anthropomorphize our robots in general. And when we think about space fly, we've done that all the time. In science fiction, they're always in that category. And even in the context to something as un-human like as the Mars Pathfinder Lander that landed in 1997, it had a stereoscopic, two-camera system on top of a stand. The designers put eyelashes on top of the cameras to make it look more human. (laugh) So we tend to do these kinds of things for reasons that are not just technical.
NNAMDINic, for the time being, is a good analogy of Robonaut to astronaut, nurse to doctor?
RADFORDOh, I think that's probably the most appropriate analogy. You know, you can think of the doctor as being the high dollar, high skilled laborer, you know, let's say in surgery. But the nurse is there to aid that doctor, you know, during the steps of that surgery, you know? It's -- hand the doctor the scalpel, hand the doctor a certain tool. Here, hold this. In fact, we've had a lot of the astronauts come and visit our lab and say, you know what would be so cool is if this robot could just hold something for me. And, you know, when you hear something like that, you know, it completely blows the doors off any -- the ways we envisioned using this robot, you know? When you're talking with the crew who eat, breathe and sleep, living aboard the International Space Station all the time, their vision for using this robot, you know, far exceeds what we can conceive of here on the ground because when they're actually doing the work, they have the perfect vision for how they wanna use this robot.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Nic Radford, he is deputy project manager for NASA's Robonaut Program, and Roger Launius, senior curator with the National Air and Space Museum and co-author of the book, "Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution and Interplanetary Travel." And inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Where do you see robots or Robonaut's extended into other usages in life? 800-433-8850. The space station already has a couple of robotic assistance, a robotic arm and a special purpose dexterous manipulator known by its nickname Dexter. What will Robonaut be able to do on the space station, Nic, that Dexter can't?
RADFORDWell, Dexter's extremely capable system and, you know, it has -- uses better -- it has a myriad of uses that they -- they're gonna use the system for. But one deficiency that the system currently has is manipulating soft materials, blankets, fluffy objects, things that are very spatially indeterminate. And so Dexter was conceived and designed and as built to move in and out ORU assemblies, you know, to help the astronauts remove and replace objects that have failed on the International Space Station and to insert their replacements. One of the issues, though, is that the astronauts still actually have to do an EVA to remove the soft goods material coverings from these ORU assemblies, these Orbital Replacement Unit assemblies. And so Dexter is not really good at moding or manipulating these flexible spatially indeterminate objects. And that's really what Robonaut was specifically designed to do. And its control architecture, its electromechanical design architecture was designed specifically for handling very indeterminate -- spatially indeterminate objects such as a blanket.
NNAMDIAny thoughts on that, Roger?
LAUNIUSWell, certainly. I mean, you know, Robonaut 2 is a cool test and it's a technology demonstrator more than anything else. Obviously, it's got capabilities that Dexter doesn't have. At this point in time, there's no intention to send it outside that may come down the road. But right now, it's an internal thing. And mostly, it's going to be use to see if we can do these things. In that particular context, it's a part of a stepwise process to become much more capable robotically.
NNAMDIHere's Miles in College Park, Md. Miles, your turn.
MILESHi. I wanted to know if you thought that robots will continue to take over a number of first in space, like the first to reach Mars and review placing humans in that aspect?
NNAMDIWhat do you think, Roger?
LAUNIUSWell, actually, robots have already reached Mars. (laugh) And...
LAUNIUS...they are on the surface. So, the first one landed there in 1976. There was another that landed in 1997, and two Mars Exploration Rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, that are still doing their thing there now after about six years on the surface.
RADFORDI mean, if I'm gonna add something. Robotic precursor missions have always come before the humans. I mean...
RADFORD...there were robots on the moon before humans where ever on the moon. And so, you know, there is, you know, the Russian rover's, Lunokhoid, you know, was a -- Lunokhoid, I'm sorry, was on the moon well before we had -- well, I'm sorry. But there's always robotic precursor missions typically before any human missions.
NNAMDIMiles, thank you for your call. We move on to Lee in Fredericksburg, Va. Hi, Lee.
LEEHello. I have a question about designing an electromechanical. And I've already heard things about whether it's also hydraulic system to operate in a vacuum. And what are the considerations as far as lubrication cooling materials that are gonna degrade in a vacuum, that sort of thing? That's my question.
RADFORDWell, there's -- you're absolutely right. Designing something for a vacuum is a lot more complicated than designing something for a shirtsleeve IVA environment. You know, tribologically, the greases and whatnot have to be very special so that they don't off -- outgas, you know, essentially lose their properties and create a cloud of -- you know, this dense cloud near the system and, you know, screw up optical features. The -- however, it's not as complicated as you might thing. A lot of the systems, you know, with just a little bit of -- with just -- with a little bit of engineering, do diligence, you know, we can -- we have that technology. I mean, we've been putting things outside for a very long time.
RADFORDAnd so it is true that we've never put something outside as sophisticated electromechanically as Robonaut probably, I mean, in terms of its dense packaging and the microelectronics that it uses and the advance processors that it uses. But these are all engineering -- these are all over come able from an engineering point of view. This technology exists and can be packaged in order to make it EVA. You know, with everything, it just needs -- it needs its proper amount of time of test beds and proving that system out. But we've actually looked -- already looked very extensively at Robonaut systems.
RADFORDWe have -- you know, at the Johnson Space Center, we're afforded the test chambers to create space on this planet. I mean, we've got chamber A and chamber B here. You know, I don't know if you've seen any of the movies like "Armageddon" or whatever, but they actually show you some of the chambers in those movies. And so we can actually pull a vacuum and create a space environment. So the good thing is, we can test and have a great amount of confidence in those systems before we invest in a high-dollar item like Robonaut to go outside and then just to have it prematurely fail.
NNAMDIBut what will you be looking for as you watch Robonaut work on the space station, Nic?
RADFORDWhat we will be looking for?
RADFORDYou know, we -- we'll probably be -- in terms of its vacuum, I mean, EVA compatibility or just its operational...
NNAMDII guess its operational functionality, if I can call it that.
RADFORDOkay. Well, we're gonna be looking at it being able to perform the same tasks that EVA astronauts perform right now. So, you know, we really envision putting out the system that's able to handle all the same objects and all the same tasks that the astronauts can, because we want it -- we want them to be able to use it in whatever capacity they see fit. And so it's gonna have to, you know, be generally capable, you know. The -- going back a little bit when you said essentially in not taking time away from an EVA astronauts, it's not really what we're after.
RADFORDYou know, think about if there was an emergency on the outside of the space station that needed to be addressed very quickly. The time it takes an astronaut to put her suit on and to pre-breath the right partial pressures of oxygen and whatnot and to go out the airlock, it actually takes several hours for this to happen. If there was any real emergency on the space station, we might not be able to withstand several hours. So having a system outside already that's resident on the outside of space station, now you're only talking about an astronaut donning virtual reality gear and then translating that system to the area of interest straight away. And so from an operational point of view, we really look at -- we look -- we like this minuteman responder sort of paradigms, you know, something that can get to an area of interest rather quickly. And so, you know, that's something to keep in the back of your mind for its operational use.
NNAMDIHere, Frank in Bowie, Md., Roger, may have an interesting suggestion. Frank, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
FRANKOh, great. Well, this is Frank in Bowie. And I just want to thank you, Kojo, for letting me on. One of the things I've been looking for, for a long time is a robot housepainter.
FRANKAnd maybe a virtual reality (laugh) with all this great stuff would make a great thing because, you know, you could stand on the floor, but the robot could be up there 10 feet above the floor doing the detailed painting, et cetera that you need to do. I don’t know. To me, it seems like that would be a very good winner because, you know, how many houses do we have in the country, 150 million?
NNAMDI(laugh) It seems like a no-brainer to you, Frank. Frank, I'll tell what we'll do. We're gonna take a short break. And after we come back, we'll talk about why General Motors came onboard to partner with NASA on this. And we'll talk with Roger and Nic about the other possible uses that the technology of a Robonaut can be put to. How about that?
RADFORDWell, it sounds great.
FRANKThank you, Kojo.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Frank. Keep listening. You, too, can call us, 800-433-8850. We're gonna take a short break, and then we'll return to our Tech Tuesday conversation on robotics and robots in space. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIAnd our Tech Tuesday conversation of robots in space. We're talking with Nic Radford, deputy project manager for NASA's Robonaut program. And with Roger Launius, senior curator with the National Air and Space Museum and co-author of "Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution and Interplanetary Travel." We're inviting your calls. How do you think a humanoid robot could be used here on earth? 800-433-8850. I know Roger has an answer to Frank's desire (laugh) to have a robot paint his house. Roger?
LAUNIUSYeah. There are robots that exist that can do that kind of work. They look nothing like Robonaut. But they are programmable and they can paint, mostly spray paint, but they can paint just about any surface that you wanna paint. And we've got lots of robots that we use all the time for all kinds of purposes. None of them have the kind of dexterity that Robonaut has. But we use them in lots of settings here on Earth, and they are making our lives better. And they are also making it possible that individuals do not have to put their lives at risk and things, specifically of something like, you know, bomb disposal robots...
LAUNIUS...that are used routinely by the military and by the police to dispose of something that might be potentially hazardous. And they have arms and they are used in the same way that Robonaut is, but they don't have that kind of dexterity.
NNAMDIFrank presumably now wants to know what's the hourly rate of the house-painting robot. Can't help you there, Frank. But Nic, in 2006, General Motors came onboard as a partner in the development of Robonaut. How does -- will the GM plan -- or how does GM plan to use humanoid robot technology in making cars?
RADFORDWell, GM came and visited our lab in early 2006, and they were looking to partner with the robotics institution or a lab or an agency. And they actually looked -- they started their search worldwide and finally said, you know, it really make sense to pair up with an American firm or agency. And they were looking at creating a generational leap in the current robotic technology so that they could take the technologies that would fall out of a quick, hot burn large infusion of cash project and integrate -- allot that intellectual property back into the manufacturing line to make their vehicle production safer and more efficient.
RADFORDSo, their plans for utilizing a robotic -- a humanoid robot on the general assembly line I wouldn't exactly -- I wouldn't exactly characterize their use in the project as that. But I would look -- I would characterize that as them wanting to create a lofty goal in order to generate a lot of intellectual property through the design and development of the system.
NNAMDIRoger, where else do you think the technology in Robonaut's intricate hands can be put to use?
LAUNIUSWell, I think there's a lot of ways in which it might be usable. I mentioned bomb disposable units. It's possible and quite probable that we could use greater dexterity there. But what about things like artificial limbs? Is the possibility out there that -- in which we might be able to replace a lost arm with something like this? Can we shrink it enough? Can we make it easy enough and usable enough for an individual to replace their arm?
NNAMDIAllow me to interrupt you because I think Tom, who is on I-66, has a question precisely along that line.
NNAMDITom, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
TOMThank you, Kojo. First of all, I like the idea of the anthropomorphic design of the robot and the idea that we are replacing certain human functions and building the robot to work alongside the same way a human would. And so my question is why we have not, as a society, tried to apply that principle here on Earth in the things we design to replace part of human functions, specifically why we didn't try to develop a walking chair rather than wheelchairs so that we could continue to use staircases and curbs rather than having to replace them all with ramps and redesign the infrastructure.
NNAMDIInteresting question. Roger, got an answer?
LAUNIUSWell, I don't have a full answer by any stretch of the imagination. But I guess I would suggest that, initially, things like wheelchairs date back to very early in human history. And we have continued to follow that path, that progression regardless. Now there are, obviously, efforts that have been made to replace legs with prostheses that allow people to walk pretty much normally, and there's a lot of effort that's been underway to do that. It's been reasonably successful.
NNAMDIOkay. Thank you very -- you wanted to add something, Nic?
RADFORDYeah, I was gonna -- you know, human performance augmentation is actually probably a very logical conclusion of a lot of robotics research. There's a lot of companies out there. If you look at your Berkeley Bionics and your Sarcos and Raytheon and Lockheeds, they're actually licensing and utilizing these smaller companies' technology like Sarcos and Berkeley Bionics to -- for exactly what the caller was just referring to, you know, being able to take these robotic technologies in terms of limbs and fuse them into the prosthetics world. I mean, you -- if you look at companies like iWalk, based out of Boston, looking at being able to create powered prosthetic devices, you know, a lot of that stuff is exactly where the field of robotics could be concluding. You know, I often tell people that maybe the real answer is not the humanoid robot that does everything. But it's actually removing those technologies and augmenting our own performance with those types of technologies. I mean in the field of exoskeletons and prosthetics, I think, are the beginnings of that evolution.
NNAMDIWhich brings me to this. And thank for your call, Tom. Roger, talk a little bit about how the communications technology that allows engineers to talk to Robonaut might be used in other ways.
LAUNIUSWell, I think that there's lots of capabilities that we can use to enhance the ability to manipulate and control all types of robots for all kinds of purposes. And obviously, there's the difficulties associated with long distance communication, and I'm thinking specifically of space flight. You know, can we control in real-time a Robonaut on the moon if we're on Earth or we're in Earth orbit? And it can be done, but it's not quite as easy as we might think. And when we get to some place like Mars with the time lag between here and there, it's almost impossible. So more autonomy is going to have to be developed, but it doesn't mean that there'll be complete autonomy on the part of a robot in far distant places.
NNAMDIAny thoughts on that, Nic, communications technology?
RADFORDYeah. And actually, we're kind of looking at dealing with the time delay that's presented with the moon and near-Earth objects. And even the space station has a three- and five-second time delay, depending on how the com gets routed. Really, what happens is, as Roger stated, you can't -- it makes real-time control of that system pretty difficult. So you have to abstract yourself out a little bit and you -- we perform things, what's called supervised autonomy. And so you're still stepping into the robot, observing the robot's actions and whatnot. But you're really directing that robot from a very high level point of view. You're no longer controlling that robot one-to-one, you know, as you would in a virtual reality environment to run over and, you know, to reach out and grab an object. You know, you will initiate that action, but the robot has to be the governs of the local action that's taking place because you honestly don't have -- I mean, the phase delay between the control systems of you operating the robot really make the actions go unstable. And so we have to employ a lot more of these complicated control paradigms like supervised autonomy.
NNAMDIHere's Jim in Silver Spring, Md. Jim, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JIMYeah. I was wondering, is most of the robot components American-made, the electronics and the other things, the hydraulics and things like that? Or is that mainly American-made-type things? I know one -- on the international space thing, they put up a -- they put a robot in. I think at one time it was Canadian. But I was also curious about where you think America stands in robotics, say, versus the Japanese and the Germans, which are also leaders in robotics.
NNAMDIFirst you, Nic.
RADFORDOkay. The -- in terms of the construction of the robot, it was designed 100 percent in-house by GM, Oceaneering International, which was a large contractor that we had on the project and NASA engineers. And so from the engineering point of view, it was all homegrown here in the U.S. of A, and all the manufacturing was done at -- on site at the Johnson Space Center. Now, a lot of -- some of the sensors that we had to purchase, some of the motors that we've purchased, you know, we have some companies that were overseas. For example, we've got -- we have a sensor in the robot that came from Israel. But there are other -- but, you know, they're spread out between, you know -- we have a myriad of different vendors that we use. Some of them are based here in the United States. Some of them are based overseas. But the construction, the assembly and the fabrication of the robot were all done within the states.
JIMAnd also, how about how you think America stands -- stacks up against, say, Japan and Germany as far as robotics?
RADFORDWell, Robonaut does represent the state of the art. So the Robonaut is the most advanced upper-body humanoid in the entire world. Everything from the miniaturization, the processing capability and the power, you know, the specific power or the power density that it's able to employ. It represents the pinnacle of what's possible right now. You know, that's -- for example, if you look across the way, you know, from other systems around the world, you're gonna look at, you know, you're -- the -- you're gonna find robots that conduct orchestras, you're gonna find robots that play the flute and you're gonna find robots that play the trumpet, but when you look at what they can actually do in terms of work.
RADFORDSo this just -- this robot was designed with doing physical work and mind. And so if you look at other, you know, say, some of the Japanese robots, you know, they've got 1, 2 kg payload capacities. And we've got, you know, we have 15 to 20-kilogram payload capacities for the system. We routinely show a demo of us slinging around at 20-pound weight, for example. So, you know, there -- they -- there's -- but every group, kind of, has its own specialty. But what we feel is Robonaut brings all of the state-of-the-art systems together in one package.
NNAMDIIndeed, Roger Launius, I was thinking that this is where competition, cooperation and globalization all intersect, isn't it?
LAUNIUSIt absolutely is. You know, there are many companies around the world that are engaged in high-technology research along robotics and they have all their pieces of this that they have excelled at. And so to suggest that there's one that's ahead of another, I think, is very difficult to do. But one of the things that is happening, I mean, America does lead in many areas associated with robotics. But that doesn't mean that others are not exceptionally capable. And in the context of spaceflight, we've been trying to very diligently insure that those capabilities around the globe are merged together to undertake the best possible program, not just for the United States but for the entire world.
NNAMDIThank you for your call, Jim. Here is Jessie in Catonsville, Md. Jessie, your turn.
JESSIEHi. Yeah. Thanks for taking my call. I had a question much less technical and probably silly question. But I know the temptation will be hard for me if I'm designing a robot like this to do something more playful and candid with it. Have you done anything like that with Robonaut? Like you're talking about through your demos talking later rounds, have you done anything like make it play a videogame or do anything like this with the robot?
NNAMDIThat you're willing to reveal on the public airwaves.
RADFORDWell, yeah. (laugh) So we might...
JESSIENow, I realize there's bunch of billions of dollars that go into this, so you're gonna have to say it out loud.
RADFORDNo. But it's all in the name of robustness and testing your system out, of course, but we might have programmed the entire fight sequence from the first "Matrix"...
RADFORD...and the robot won that.
NNAMDIThat just may have happened.
RADFORDThat just may…
LAUNIUSBut can it play Wii?
RADFORDYeah. That just may have happened.
NNAMDINic, talk about Robonaut's life expectancy. What changes are you planning to make during its time and space and how long do you expect it to last?
RADFORDWell, right now the space station is gonna be flying through 2020. And all of us at NASA think it'll probably be extended beyond that. We don't have any plans for bringing the robot back. It was on -- it's currently on a one-way. We didn't punch its ticket for coming home. So it's gonna be up there, and we're gonna continue to sustain and maintain that system. And like we've been talking about from earlier on your show, we're gonna continuously upgrade the system and we're gonna make a -- we're gonna get it outside and make it go EVA just to start closing the loop on, you know, 15 years of why we started this project.
NNAMDIWas it hard to pack your robot up for a one-way trip into space? So are there plans?
RADFORDYou know, it kind of was. You kind of -- you affectionately get attached to these systems, you know, when you're -- we were asked to take a prototype system. You know, we had two Robonaut, R2s, that we developed with General Motors. And in January, the space station program, kind of, got the idea and said, you know, what would it take to put one of these up on orbit? And so we, with a very short period of time, accessed that project for them, came back and told them what it was gonna take, and they agreed to it. And you know, that's how we hitched a ride.
RADFORDBut, you know, when we were packing it up at Kennedy for integration into the PMM, the module that's it's gonna be flying up in the shuttle, you know, it was a bittersweet moment letting go of the system knowing that we were giving it over to, you know, the astronauts onboard. But we knew we were giving it into good hands. So it's -- but like I said, you know, we're -- it was a little weird.
NNAMDIRoger, think we'll be seeing a lot of Robonaut siblings in the future?
LAUNIUSWell, I think we will definitely. And one of the key points, and Nic just made it a moment ago, is that we're happy to allow them to work out their service life and not bring them home. They're on suicide missions and that's fine. We're learning from that process and we're making more developed and capable ones as we go.
NNAMDIRoger Launius is senior curator with the National Air and Space Museum and co-author of "Robots in Space: Technology, Evolution and Interplanetary Travel." Roger, thank you for joining us.
NNAMDINic Radford is deputy project manager for NASA's Robonaut program. Nic, thank you for joining us and good luck.
RADFORDNo, it was a pleasure being here. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you all for listening to this edition of Tech Tuesday. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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