NASA's humanoid robot to get a leg up on space station

An upcoming SpaceX cargo spacecraft will bring a pair of legs for Robonaut 2

A pair of robotic legs will be heading to the International Space Station.

That's right. Robot legs.

Robonaut 2, also known as R2, is a humanoid robot that has been working on the space station since 2011.

The 300-pound robot, which had been in the works for 11 years, has 38 PowerPC processors, including 36 embedded chips, which control its joints. Each of the embedded processors communicates with the main chip in the robot.

The robot, whose legless torso has been attached to a stationary pedestal, is expected to eventually take over some basic duties, such as cleaning and maintenance inside the station, freeing up the astronauts to do more critical work, like scientific experiments. NASA scientists hope that one day, with upgrades to the robot's torso, it will be able to work outside the station, aiding astronauts in spacewalks.

To do much of that work, the robot needs legs.

That's where SpaceX, a commercial space flight company that runs cargo missions to the space station, comes into play.

SpaceX is set to carry the robotic legs onboard one of its Dragon cargo crafts in its third contracted resupply mission to the space station. The mission had been scheduled for launch on Sunday but was postponed because of a recent fire that damaged radar equipment on the East Coast of Florida.

The damaged equipment sits in the Eastern Range, a facility that supports missile and rocket launches from both the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and the Kennedy Space Station.

NASA has not given a new date for the mission launch.

However, once the legs arrive at the station and are attached to R2's torso, the robot will have a fully extended leg span of nine feet. That, according to NASA, will give it "great flexibility" to move around the inside and outside of the space station.

Each leg has seven joints and a device on its foot, called an end effector, a tool that enables the machine to use handrails and sockets.

The end effector also has what NASA is calling a vision system, which is designed to help controllers verify and eventually automate each limb's approach to and grasp of an object.

Over the last two and a half years, astronauts have run experimental trials with R2 to see how it functions in space and to put humans at ease with working with the robot.

So far, the robot has been able to correctly press buttons, flip switches and turn knobs. It also has worked with human tools, using an air flow meter and an RFID inventory scanner.

NASA also reported that R2, which can also catch free-floating objects, has communicated using sign language.

The space agency expects to test Robonaut 2's new legs in June. After checking out the joints, the robot will take its first steps in space.

This article, NASA's humanoid robot to get a leg up on space station, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

See more by Sharon Gaudin on Computerworld.com.

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