NASA upgrades humanoid robot in space

Before Robonaut 2 gets its legs, it receives new processors, fans and software

The 300-pound humanoid robot working on the International Space Station is in the midst of getting a series of upgrades, including new processors and software, in preparation of having a pair of legs attached to it.

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

Aboard the International Space Station, NASA astronaut and Space Station Commander Steve Swanson gets ready to install upgrades to Robonaut 2. (Photo: NASA TV)

"Commander Steve Swanson focused his attention primarily on mobility upgrades for the station's robotic crew member, Robonaut 2," NASA reported on its website. "Since arriving aboard the station in May 2011 during the STS-134 space shuttle mission, Robonaut has been put through a series of increasingly complex tasks to test the feasibility of a humanoid robot taking over routine and mundane chores or even assisting a spacewalker outside the station."

In March, SpaceX, a commercial space flight company that runs cargo missions to the space station, brought up a pair of robotic legs for Robonaut.

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

The robot has 38 PowerPC processors, including 36 embedded chips, which control the robot's joints. Each leg has seven joints and a device on its foot, dubbed an end effector, a tool that enables the robot to use handrails and sockets.

Since Robonaut was unpacked and set up on the station in 2011, astronauts have run experiments to see how the robot functions in space. NASA scientists also have been working with astronauts onboard the station to get them to use the robot and put them at ease with it.

So far, the robot, which can communicate using sign language, has been able to correctly press buttons, flip switches and turn knobs. It also has worked with tools, using an air flow meter and an RFID inventory scanner, according to NASA.

In preparation for attaching Robonaut's legs, the astronauts installed new processors and replaced fans, a power distribution board and other components inside the robot's torso.

Last weekend, NASA's robotics team on the ground remotely deployed software for the robot's new processors. NASA has not specified what type of processors or what software has been added.

NASA originally planned to install and test the robot's legs in June, that didn't happen and a new installation timeframe has not been announced.

This article, NASA upgrades humanoid robot in space, 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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