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Meet NASA’s Robot Astronaut

Staffer Covers Robonaut 2’s Public Demo

NASA robot
Robonaut 2 is NASA's latest generation of robotic astronaut helpers.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Imagine an astronaut that can work tirelessly 24 hours a day, seven days a week -- without needing food, drink or oxygen.

That’s the vision behind Robonaut 2, the world’s first human-like robotic astronaut set to be launched into space. A joint project of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and General Motors (GM), the robot -- fondly called R2 -- is designed to assist human astronauts in performing routine maintenance and emergency repair work aboard the International Space Station.

R2 was scheduled to be delivered to the space station on Nov. 1 by the six-member crew of space shuttle Discovery during its 11-day STS-133 mission, along with the station’s supplies, spare parts and the Permanent Multipurpose Module. However, a series of technical glitch -- a couple of fuel leaks and voltage fluctuations in the shuttle’s orbiter -- as well as bad weather forced a delay in Discovery’s launch to February at the earliest.

Staffer On Hand for Demo

Edwin Aguirre, the science and technology writer in UMass Lowell’s Public Affairs Office, got a chance to see R2 up close during a pre-launch news briefing held on Nov. 2 at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Fla. He and his wife, Imelda Joson, joined the nearly 100 journalists in the press auditorium as NASA and GM engineers demonstrated R2’s capabilities, dexterity and artificial intelligence.

At one point, the robot showed its strength and endurance by effortlessly picking up a 20-pound barbell and holding the weight steady with its arm fully extended, as a male volunteer from the robotics team struggled to keep up.

“It was amazing to see the robot in action!” says Aguirre. “R2 really impressed everyone with the human-like movement of its arms and fingers. It’s science fiction turned to reality. All the robot needs now is a voice so it can communicate verbally and a pair of legs for added mobility.”

Check out the video he shot of R2’s demo, which is posted in UMass Lowell’s YouTube page, and the photos he and Joson took in the University's photo gallery.

UMass Amherst Team Helped with Program

During the press conference, Robert Ambrose, chief of automation, robotics and simulation at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, cited the universities and institutions that have helped NASA with the Robonaut program, including UMass Amherst.

“Dr. Rod Grupen and his team did a great job helping us with the project,” says Ambrose, referring to the computer science professor at UMass Amherst and director of that university’s Laboratory for Perceptual Robotics.

Robonaut 2 measures three feet, four inches from waist to head, and weighs 330 pounds. It is made primarily of aluminum with steel and non-metallic components, and has 38 power PC processors and more than 350 sensors. There are no plans to bring R2 home. It will become a permanent resident of the space station.

For more information about R2, go to NASA's Robonaut website.

UMass Lowell staffer Edwin Aguirre shakes hand with Robonaut 2 during a Kennedy Space Center press conference.
The space shuttle Discovery was poised for liftoff at Launch Complex 39A on Cape Canaveral, Fla., on Nov. 5.