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NASA’s dancing robot

  • Six-limbed robot prototype
  • Able to lift heavy payloads
  • Could be used on the Moon or Mars

NASA’s All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer (ATHLETE) vehicle concept is based on six wheels at the ends of six multi-degree-of-freedom limbs.

ATHLETE uses its wheels for efficient driving over stable, gently rolling terrain. Because each limb has enough degrees of freedom for use as a general-purpose leg, the wheels can be locked and used as feet to walk out of excessively soft, obstacle rich, or other extreme terrain.

ATHLETE is envisioned as a heavy-lift utility vehicle to support human exploration of the lunar or Martian surface, useful for unloading bulky cargo from stationary landers and transporting it long distances over varied terrain.

To demonstrate this concept, several prototype vehicles have been developed for testing at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

The 1st generation ATHLETE prototype, built in 2005, consists of 6, six-degree-of-freedom limbs mounted to the corners of a hexagonal ring 2.75m (9 ft) wide. These vehicles have a maximum standing height of just over 2m (6.5 ft), weigh approximately 850 kg (1875 lb) and can carry a maximum payload of 300 kg (660 lb) in Earth gravity. Two identical prototypes were constructed in 2005, and one of these is still operational in 2010.

The 2nd generation ATHLETE prototype was constructed in 2009 and is implemented as a coordinated system of two Tri-ATHLETEs, fully independent three-limbed robots.

This innovation allows a straightforward cargo handling strategy: two Tri-ATHLETEs dock to opposite sides of a cargo pallet, forming a six-limbed symmetrical vehicle, work together to move and emplace the cargo, then undock and depart.

This strategy provides all the advantages of the six-limbed concept for cargo or habitat transport with the additional benefits of flexibility and modularity. The 2nd generation prototype is designed to demonstrate cargo handling at half the anticipated lunar scale.

The robot stands to a maximum height of just over 4m (13 ft) and has a payload capacity of 450 kg (990 lb) in Earth gravity.

ATHLETE deploying a drill attachment on a cliff face in 2009.

ATHLETE deploying a drill attachment on a cliff face in 2009.

A side benefit of the wheel-on-limb approach is that each limb has sufficient degrees-of-freedom for use as a general-purpose manipulator (hence the name “limb” instead of “leg”).

The prototype ATHLETE vehicles have quick-disconnect tool adapters on the limbs that allow tools to be drawn out of a “tool belt” and manoeuvred by the limb. A rotating power-take-off from the wheel actuates the tools, so that they can take advantage of the 1+ horsepower (745+ watt) motor in each wheel to enable drilling, gripping or other power-tool functions.

This work was performed at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), California Institute of Technology, under contract with NASA. ATHLETE is being developed by JPL as part of the Human-Robot Systems (HRS) Project managed by Robert Ambrose of the Johnson Space Centre (JSC). HRS is one of several projects funded by the NASA Exploration Technology Development Program (ETDP) that is developing new technology in support of human exploration.

Adapted from information issued by NASA / JPL-Caltech.

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Star Wars meets Space Station

Robonaut 2 stretching out one of its arms

Robonaut2 is faster, more dexterous and more technologically advanced than its predecessors and able to use its hands to do work beyond the scope of previous humanoid robots.

  • First humanoid robot in space
  • To be tested aboard the Space Station
  • Has a head, two arms and hands

NASA will launch the first human-like robot to space later this year to become a permanent resident of the International Space Station.

Robonaut 2, or R2, was developed jointly by NASA and General Motors under a co-operative agreement to develop a robotic assistant that can work alongside humans, whether they are astronauts in space or workers at GM manufacturing plants on Earth.

The 140kg R2 consists of a head and a torso with two arms and two hands. It will launch on space shuttle Discovery as part of the STS-133 mission planned for September.

Once aboard the station, engineers will monitor how the robot operates in weightlessness. R2 will be confined to operations in the station’s Destiny laboratory. However, future enhancements and modifications may allow it to move more freely around the station’s interior or outside the complex.

“This project exemplifies the promise that a future generation of robots can have both in space and on Earth, not as replacements for humans but as companions that can carry out key supporting roles,” said John Olson, director of NASA’s Exploration Systems Integration Office at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

Chris Ihrke, senior project engineer for General Motors, works with Robonaut 2.

Chris Ihrke, senior project engineer for General Motors, works with Robonaut 2.

“The combined potential of humans and robots is a perfect example of the sum equalling more than the parts. It will allow us to go farther and achieve more than we can probably even imagine today.”

The dexterous robot not only looks like a human but also is designed to work like one. With human-like hands and arms, R2 is able to use the same tools station crewmembers use.

In the future, the greatest benefits of humanoid robots in space may be as assistants or stand-in for astronauts during spacewalks or for tasks too difficult or dangerous for humans.

For now, R2 is still a prototype and does not have adequate protection needed to exist outside the space station in the extreme temperatures of space.

Adapted from information issued by NASA.