Robonaut 2 was built "to bring robots to the next level," said Vytas SunSpiral, a senior robotics researcher at Ames, "to where you could see them working in people's houses, or out in public."
NASA intends to use Robonaut to do tasks that are too dangerous for humans, such as risky spacewalks, as well as for jobs that are too mundane, like swabbing the internal surfaces of the space station to prevent bacterial buildup -- an onerous task that now falls to astronauts. On Earth, GM hopes to use a future version of Robonaut, or component pieces of its technology, on its assembly lines or even inside its cars.
But engineers who worked on Robonaut 2 say the machine may mark a milestone in the relationship between humans and robots, as robots evolve toward a place so far only visited in science fiction novels, where they would work side by side with people.
"There is a certain connection that people feel toward things that look similar to them," said Marty Linn, principal robotic engineer for GM, who worked with NASA engineers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston for more than three years on Robonaut 2. "You are looking to have a machine that is going to be able to work in an environment with humans."
A key feature that makes that possible is that its limbs and joints are built to be like a human body, in that they can be both strong and rigid, or soft and compliant, depending on the situation. Unlike other robots, Robonaut's control motors have what engineers call an "elastic actuator," essentially a spring built into the motor. If Robonaut collides with a control panel, or an astronaut, there should not be collateral damage.
"Having that ability to adapt to the world physically, not just through (computer) algorithms, but through your physical structure, you can really enhance a robot's ability to engage in the physical world," SunSpiral said. "That is really a necessary step to make it so that humans and robots can safety operate together."
GM does not disclose the amount of its Robonaut 2 investment, but Linn said the project has produced about 40 patents. One goal is to improve the quality of its assembly lines.
"Any time you can get to operations that are very mundane and very repetitive, you'd like to be able to automate those things to help the (human) operators add value to the product," Linn said.
Because of the time delay in space communications, NASA and GM needed Robonaut 2 to be more independent. It will be controlled by space station astronauts, but can be programmed to do specific tasks and complete them autonomously. NASA foresees humanoid robots eventually repairing satellites, or serving as an advance scout for astronauts to asteroids, comets or Mars. But SunSpiral, who will help demonstrate Robonaut's capabilities in space, sees other human benefits.
Robots, he said, are "a tool to learn more about ourselves."