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Humanoid space robots still have great progress to make

– News of January 13, 2019

Since 2013, NASA has been developing a humanoid robot named Valkyrie. It is the latest in a line of robots designed to help astronauts. First there were Robonaut and Robonaut 2, machines more and more complex and declined in multiple variations with legs or wheels. Robonaut 2 was even sent to the International Space Station in 2011. It was brought back to Earth in 2018 aboard a Dragon capsule and could one day return to Earth orbit.

Valkyrie does not have an opportunity to go into space yet. The robot was designed to help astronauts on Mars. So we should not need it for a long time. Yet it has features that would make it an ideal work companion. Its head includes many sensors, cameras and microphones that ensure that the robot is always aware of its surroundings. Its four-fingered hands are covered with pressure sensors to allow it to manipulate objects with a great precision. It can be connected to an external power source or draw from its battery which offers it an hour of autonomy.

Valkyrie may never go to Mars but the robots that will accompany the astronauts on the red planet could have the same silhouette. If these robots look like human beings, it is not to please science fiction fans. This avoids adding complexity to a mission. These robots must be able to work with the same tools as humans, go through the same openings, take stairs, etc. For the moment the contribution of humanoid robots for space missions remains very limited, but robotics is a rapidly evolving field. It could be different in five to ten years.

German space agency develops versatile manipulator robot

– News of November 14, 2017 –

As in many other sectors, robots are becoming increasingly important in the space industry. Among them, robotic arms are particularly appreciated by astronauts. The Canadarm 2 articulated arm and the Dextre articulated arm, both of which are installed on the International Space Station (ISS), allow, for example, heavy maintenance operations without the need for spacewalks. But these two instruments are starting to age and the field of robotics is evolving very fast. In Germany, the German Center for Aeronautics and Astronautics (DLR) has just introduced an extremely precise manipulator robot for the space industry. This robot is called Spacehand. According to its designers, its capabilities exceed those of a human hand, with its 19 engines and over 200 sensors. It is an anthropomorphic robot, that is to say that it imitates the shape of a human hand. This gives it the advantage of being able to work on almost any manipulation task that would normally be reserved for a human.

The robot is equipped with two control systems. It can either be programmed as a classic robot, or be controlled using a glove which can reproduce the movements. It was initially developed for the RSGS mission, whose launch is planned for the beginning of the decade 2020. The robot will be able to refuel and repair a satellite in geostationary orbit. In addition to this mission, Spacehand could help many other projects. In all inhabited missions, it could be useful. But such a robot could go even further, by refueling, maintaining and why not by assembling modular satellites, which should be available quickly enough. Both technologies seem to complement each other to perfection.

Given the dangers associated with the space environment, it seems logical to limit extravehicular human exits as much as possible. It is easy to imagine that within a decade or two, all the operations that push astronauts out of their space station can be done at lower risk and at a lower cost by robots. The human presence in space can then be entirely dedicated to scientific research and the realization of experiments. The growing performance of robots should also translate into increased capabilities in planetary exploration, or the exploitation of space resources.

Very few tasks require a human presence in space. The costs of developing a viable environment for humans would also be invested in designing robots that can perform the same tasks. But manned flight remains a strong symbol and the capabilities that accompany it must be preserved and developed, if one wishes one day to be able to consider colonizing other planets.

Image by NASA website.


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