July 12, 2007
One of the interesting speakers we heard from while visiting Johnson Space Center was Lyndon Bridgewater, who gave a presentation about the Robonaut robotic system. Robonaut is a robot with humanoid appearance and highly-maneuverable hands, with fourteen degrees of freedom in each. The “virtual reality” teleoperator controls for Robonaut are futuristic but designed to be intuitive and useful. They consist of a head-mount display so the user can see from Robonaut’s perspective, and head, hand, and arm sensors to sense the user’s movements which are then actuated so that Robonaut mirrors the user’s movements.
Robonaut is envisioned as an astronaut helper or proxy on dangerous extra-vehicular activities (EVAs). The humanoid form of Robonaut is designed for EVAs that would be suited for astronauts but are more dangerous than we would want to risk actual people on. It is also more intuitive for people to learn how to control a human-based robot since controlling Robonaut consists of acting as if the user were in Robonaut’s place.
There are several different forms of Robonaut that are being developed and tested. The different forms share the same humanoid upper body form, with different bases engineered for different scenarios of use. One interesting lower body base being experimented with is a spider-like base with eight legs and a scorpion-like tail, which can be used to pick an object up and hold it while the upper body’s arms work on the object.