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NASA Awards Two Robots to University Groups for R&D Upgrades


Humanoid robots will be helpful to astronauts on our journey to Mars, so NASA has awarded prototypes to two universities for advanced research and development work.

NASA is interested in humanoid robots because they can help or even take the place of astronauts working in extreme space environments. Robots, like NASA’s R5, could be used in future NASA missions either as precursor robots performing mission tasks before humans arrive or as human-assistive robots actively collaborating with the human crew. R5 initially was designed to complete disaster-relief maneuvers, however, its main goal is to prove itself worthy of even trickier terrain — deep space exploration.

“Advances in robotics, including human-robotic collaboration, are critical to developing the capabilities required for our journey to Mars,” said Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “We are excited to engage these university research groups to help NASA with this next big step in robotics technology development.”

The two university proposals selected are:

Robust Autonomy for Extreme Space Environments: Hosting R5 at Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts, led by principal investigator Russ Tedrake
Accessible Testing on Humanoid-Robot-R5 and Evaluation of NASA Administered (ATHENA) Space Robotics Challenge — Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, led by principal investigator Taskin Padir

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A Step Up for NASA’s Robonaut: Ready for Climbing Legs


Getting your “space legs” in Earth orbit has taken on new meaning for NASA’s pioneering Robonaut program.

Thanks to a successful launch of the SpaceX-3 flight of the Falcon 9/Dragon capsule on Friday, April 18, the lower limbs for Robonaut 2 (R2) are aboard the International Space Station (ISS). Safely tucked inside the Dragon resupply vehicle, R2’s legs are to be attached by a station crew member to Robonaut’s torso already on the orbiting outpost.

R2’s upper body arrived on the space station back in February 2011 during the last flight of the space shuttle Discovery. That event signaled the first human-like robot to arrive in space to become a permanent resident of the laboratory.

Jointly developed by NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations and Space Technology mission directorates in cooperation with with General Motors, R2 showcases how a robotic assistant can work alongside humans, whether tasks are done in space or on Earth in a manufacturing facility.

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NASA’s space station Robonaut finally getting legs

By MARCIA DUNN, AP Aerospace Writer | April 19, 2014


CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — Robonaut, the first out-of-this-world humanoid, is finally getting its space legs.

For three years, Robonaut has had to manage from the waist up. This new pair of legs means the experimental robot — now stuck on a pedestal — is going mobile at the International Space Station.

“Legs are going to really kind of open up the robot’s horizons,” said Robert Ambrose from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston.

It’s the next big step in NASA’s quest to develop robotic helpers for astronauts. With legs, the 8-foot Robonaut will be able to climb throughout the 260-mile-high outpost, performing mundane cleaning chores and fetching things for the human crew.

The robot’s gangly, contortionist-bending legs are packed aboard a SpaceX supply ship that launched Friday, more than a month late. It was the private company’s fourth shipment to the space station for NASA and is due to arrive Easter Sunday morning.

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Engineers Building Hard-working Mining Robot

Mining Robots

After decades of designing and operating robots full of scientific gear to study other worlds, NASA is working on a prototype that leaves the delicate instruments at home in exchange for a sturdy pair of diggers and the reliability and strength to work all day, every day for years.

Think of it as a blue collar robot.

Dubbed RASSOR, for Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot and pronounced “razor,” the autonomous machine is far from space-ready, but the earliest design has shown engineers the broad strokes of what their lunar soil excavator needs in order to operate reliably.

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Researchers explore the potential of an exoskeleton patients can control with their brains


Robotics engineer Roger Rovecamp tries out the X1 exoskeleton as University of Houston professor Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal looks on. Image credit: University of Houston

Jose Luis Contreras-Vidal looked on as Roger Rovekamp, wearing a skullcap covered in electrodes, took halting steps, each leg moved by the robotic exoskeleton wrapped around his body.

Contreras-Vidal, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering, develops algorithms that read electrical activity in the brain and translate it into movement.

His Rehab Rex gained attention for its ability to help people with spinal cord injuries stand upright and “walk.” That project is now waiting for clinical testing to begin at Houston Methodist Hospital.

His newest project is a colaboration with engineers from NASA, and it could help patients with conditions such as stroke or Parkinson’s disease.

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NASA’s Ironman-Like Exoskeleton Could Give Astronauts, Paraplegics Improved Mobility and Strength


Marvel Comic’s fictional superhero, Ironman, uses a powered armor suit that allows him superhuman strength. While NASA’s X1 robotic exoskeleton can’t do what you see in the movies, the latest robotic, space technology, spinoff derived from NASA’s Robonaut 2 project may someday help astronauts stay healthier in space with the added benefit of assisting paraplegics in walking here on Earth.NASA and The Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition (IHMC) of Pensacola, Fla., with the help of engineers from Oceaneering Space Systems of Houston, have jointly developed a robotic exoskeleton called X1. The 57-pound device is a robot that a human could wear over his or her body either to assist or inhibit movement in leg joints.In the inhibit mode, the robotic device would be used as an in-space exercise machine to supply resistance against leg movement. The same technology could be used in reverse on the ground, potentially helping some individuals walk for the first time.

“Robotics is playing a key role aboard the International Space Station and will continue to be critical as we move toward human exploration of deep space,” said Michael Gazarik, director of NASA’s Space Technology Program. “What’s extraordinary about space technology and our work with projects like Robonaut are the unexpected possibilities space tech spinoffs may have right here on Earth. It’s exciting to see a NASA-developed technology that might one day help people with serious ambulatory needs begin to walk again, or even walk for the first time. That’s the sort of return on investment NASA is proud to give back to America and the world.”

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Robot exoskeleton suits that could make us superhuman

Exoskeleton Technology

Lockheed Martin’s HULC exoskeleton is designed to allow soldiers to carry superhuman loads. (Image Credits: Lockheed Martin).

If you’ve been dreaming of strapping on your own “Iron Man” armor, you might have to wait a while longer. But revolutionary “bionic exoskeletons,” like the metal suit worn by comic book hero Tony Stark, might be closer than you think — just don’t expect to fly away in one.

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Source*: CNN

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NASA JPL controls rover with Leap Motion, shows faith in consumer hardware


If you think using the Leap Motion controller for playing air guitar and typing without a keyboard was cool, try using it to control a NASA rover. Victor Luo and Jeff Norris from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab got on stage at the Game Developers Conference here in San Francisco to do just that with the ATHLETE (All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer), which was located 383 miles away in Pasadena. As Luo waved his hand over the sensor, the robot moved in kind, reacting to the subtle movements of his fingers and wrists, wowing the crowd that watched it over a projected Google+ Hangout.

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Slideshow: Competitors Gear Up For DARPA Robot Challenge

Robotic Entry

The stage has been set for competitors to vie for a $2 million prize from the Department of Defense to develop a robot that could perform a number of physical tasks that might be required to respond to a disaster or an emergency as part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Robotics Challenge, which DARPA unveiled last October.

Research teams from Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Drexel University, Boston Dynamics, NASA, SCHAFT Inc., Virginia Tech, and Raytheon are developing robots that might be used one day for perilous tasks, such as searching for earthquake survivors or driving a vehicle through rubble.

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Source*: DesignNews

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How To Build A Hero


Humans regularly lose their lives rushing into disaster zones. Now engineers are racing to build robots that can take their place.

By the end of next year, robots will walk into a disaster zone. They won’t roll in on wheels or rumble in on treads. They will walk, striding across rubble, most of them balancing on two legs. Compared with human first responders, the machines will move slowly and halt frequently. But what they lack in speed, they make up for in resilience and disposability. Chemical fires can’t sear a robot’s lungs, and a lifespan cut short by gamma rays is a logistical snag rather than a tragedy.

They’ll have the mobility to do what robots couldn’t at Fukushima, navigating a crisis that unfolds in an environment lousy with doors, stairs, shattered infrastructure, and countless other obstacles. Where previous humanoid bots could barely trundle over the lip of a carpet, these systems will have to climb ladders and slide into vehicles that they themselves drive. And while the ability to turn a doorknob is now cause for celebration even in top-tier robotics labs, these bots will open what doors they can and use power tools to hammer or saw through the ones they can’t.

Because disasters tend to degrade or knock out communication, the surrogates will have a surprising amount of responsibility. Very few, if any, will be tele-operated systems, driven remotely by people using a joystick or wearing sensor gloves. The humanoids will take orders from distant humans, but they’ll use their own algorithms to determine how to properly grip a Sawzall, where to start cutting, and for how long.

The catastrophe the robots will be walking into is, in fact, an obstacle course, built for the two-year-long DARPA Robotics Challenge, which launched last October. At stake is a $2-million prize, awarded to the team whose machine not only scores well in a head-to-head competition this December, but prevails at a second one in 2014. Bots will have to perform eight different tasks, demonstrating both mobility and manipulation skills, that might be required of human first responders.

“What we’ve seen in disaster after disaster, from Hurricane Katrina to Fukushima and now to Superstorm Sandy, is that there are often clear limitations to what humans can accomplish in the early stages of a disaster,” says Gill Pratt, program manager for the challenge. “DARPA believes that robots can substitute for humans where and when situations are too dangerous.”

The competition rules don’t explicitly call for a humanoid design, but the tasks and environment make one a logical choice. From the height of doorknobs to the placement of brake pedals, nearly everything will be positioned and proportioned for creatures that walk upright. The places we care about most in a disaster are where humans live and work­—a robot made in our own image is a natural fit.

Completing just a few of the competition’s tasks would be a remarkable achievement. Nailing all eight of them would be something more. It could mean the birth of the viable humanoid, a machine that’s both competent and robust. Such robots could go where mankind has gone before but shouldn’t again, striding toward the toxic plume or the reactor in meltdown, into the fresh ruins of the built world. These robots could be heroes.


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Source*: PopSci

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Meet ATHLETE, NASA’s Next Robot Moon Walker


To build and supply a lunar base, astronauts will need heavy-duty space trucks for transporting gear. There’s just one problem: no roads. That’s why NASA engineers designed the rover they call ATHLETE (All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer)—to handle any terrain, whether dusty, rocky, or crater-y.

The key is the rover’s six bendable spider legs and wheeled feet. On smooth surfaces, it rolls on those wheels; when it runs into an obstacle it can’t clear, it simply steps over it. ATHLETE can also split into a pair of robots that together pick up and haul specially designed shipping containers. (A lander would bring a container to the surface separately.)

So far, engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory have demonstrated that their $2 million half-size prototype—which consists of two semiautonomous, three-legged robots—can move cargo, walk on inclines, and use tools. The researchers say the actual, 26-foot-tall rover could be ready to start working in space by 2017.

1) The ATHLETE moon rover has 48 stereo cameras, which stream 3-D video from its limbs, frame, and wheels to human operators on Earth or the moon, allowing them to look for hazards and maneuver tools. ATHLETE will have more cameras than any previous rover. (Curiosity has 17.)

2) The rover can refill its hydrogen fuel cells at a solar-powered station that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen (for astronauts to breathe).

3) ATHLETE’s wheeled limbs let it walk, drive, or climb, depending on the environment. Each has seven motorized joints that bend and twist. ATHLETE controls each leg separately so that it can keep cargo level even while climbing uneven terrain.

4) Drills, scoops, and grippers collect rock and soil samples for analysis. One set of motors operates both the wheels and tools, which saves weight and makes the rover cheaper to launch into space.

5) Clamps on the wheels hold interchangeable tools.

6) A tool belt stores gear when not in use.

7) Airless tires can’t burst or go flat.


8) Drive: People in mission control (on Earth or on the moon) tell the ATHLETE rover to drive to a lander that has just touched down, carrying a cargo pallet. Incoming supplies must land far from the astronauts’ base to prevent jagged moondust from damaging equipment.

9) SplitATHLETE divides into two identical, three-legged rovers, called Tri-ATHLETEs, by lifting motorized hooks that latch across its center.

10) Stretch: The rovers straighten their legs until they’re 27 feet tall—high enough to reach above the lander to the cargo pallet—and use their motorized hooks to grab pins on either side of the cargo.

11) Walk: If the rovers travel over rocky terrain too uneven for driving, they can walk while keeping the cargo level.

12) Deliver: The rovers crouch down until the pallet is on the ground and then release it.


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Source*: PopSci

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Altius signs SAA with LaRC for Compactly Stowable Manipulator development


A Space Act Agreement (SAA) has been announced between Altius Space Machines and NASA’s Langely Research Center (LaRC) to develop concepts for a new series of compactly-stowable, long-reach spacecraft robotic manipulators. The agreement will allow for Altius and NASA to jointly develop a new and novel Compactly Stowable Manipulator (CSM) system.

Altius Space Machines:

Altius Space Machines is a space technology company, based in Louisville, Colorado, founded with the goal of reducing the barriers to space commerce. The company has already hit the ground running, wining first place in the 2011 NewSpace Business Plan Competition in Silicon Valley.

Altius is known in the space community for its work in developing rendezvous and docking solutions using its Sticky Boom non-cooperative capture technology, for space stations and propellant depots, manned spaceflight, satellite servicing, and other applications.

The company recently announced it had signed a contract with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to provide engineering services as part of the DARPA Phoenix Program.

That contract calls for Altius to develop and integrate a storable tubular arm (STEM) for use as a platform for situational awareness cameras and lights, and as a tool to reduce unwanted vibrations on parts of the target spacecraft caused during the component removal and repurposing operation.

The SAA with NASA LaRC relates to the development of concepts for compactly-stowable, long-reach spacecraft robotic manipulators, or robotic arms as they are commonly known.

Some of the most famous robotic manipulators were involved with the Space Shuttle Program (SSP), with the SRMS (Shuttle Remote Manipulator System) debuting with Columbia on her STS-2 mission at the end of 1981.

The 50 foot boom was used in a variety of modes, from grappling payloads on orbit, to handing over cargo from the orbiter’s cargo bay.

Once the International Space Station begin its assembly phase, the orbital outpost gained its own robotic arm, known as the SSRMS (Space Station Remote Manipulator System) or Canadarm2. Somewhat larger than the Shuttle version, the SSRMS incorporates many advanced features, including the ability to self relocate.

It was soon joined by Dextre, a multi-capable Canadian robot that resides on the end of the SSRMS during operations, along with smaller robotic hardware on the Japanese section of the Station.

The Shuttle also gained a second arm, a post-Columbia improvement called the Orbiter Boom Sensor System (OBSS), which was used – on the end of the SRMS – to provide the additional reach to manuever a sensor suite over critical parts of the orbiter’s Thermal Protection System (TPS) in order to gain data and photography of the heatshield’s health.

Due to the growing size – and smaller clearances – of the Station and the modules riding uphill, NASA managers did evaluate a smaller RMS known as the “Miniboom”. However, that was cancelled in favor of an additional OBSS.

Now, a new generation of booms are being developed by Altius, with the non-reimbursable Space Act Agreement (SAA) with NASA LaRC specific to the Compactly Stowable Manipulator (CSM).

“As the name suggests, the CSM will have a very small packaging volume, yet be capable of highly-dexterous, long-reach operations,” noted Altius in a media release on Tuesday.

“When combined with a non-cooperative payload capture technology, the CSM would also enable satellite servicing, small-package delivery/return, and rendezvous/capture of nanosat-scale free flyers or sample return canisters.”

Satellite servicing has already begun testingvia NASA’s Robotic Refuelling Mission (RRM) experiments – involving Dextre – on the ISS. And while no discussions with the ISS program office have taken place yet, Altius believes that their technology has the potential to add important new capabilities to the Station.

“Research performed at orbital facilities such as the International Space Station (ISS) would be dramatically more agile and competitive if there were a means for providing small-package payload delivery and sample return on a just-in-time basis,” the company added.

“A long-reach manipulator system, such as the system that will be investigated under this SAA, would be capable of capturing or releasing small vehicles (both cooperatively and non-cooperatively) at a safe distance from ISS. As a result, these small vehicles would not be required to station-keep relative to ISS, enabling them to deliver and return payloads safely and affordably by providing just-in-time payload transport services.”

CSM is a multi-talented technology, that also addresses the needs of future spacecraft, vehicles that are currently without defined plans for RMS capabilities that were enjoyed by spacecraft such as the Space Shuttle.

“Commercial crew and cargo transportation vehicles and NASA exploration vehicles, such as the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV), would accrue significant benefits if a robotic arm with performance capabilities similar to the Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (SRMS), but having much higher packaging efficiency, could be developed to fit on such vehicles,” added the Altius release.

“Such an extendable/retractable RMS-class manipulator would enable inspection and repair of the vehicle windward and backshell TPS on missions to destinations other than the ISS and would additionally assist in EVA activities.”

Space manipulator development is performed at the Langley Research Center for the Game Changing Division of the NASA Office of Chief Technologist under the Human Robotics Systems Project. With Altius now onboard, the parties will benefit from the commercial requirements and systems engineering input provided by Altius, which will link very long-reach tendon-actuated manipulator technology development to commercial space missions.

Altius claims these new mission concepts and the technology developed under this SAA have the potential to open up completely new lines of commercial-space operations in payload handling, servicing, repair, and assembly.

“Together, Altius and NASA Langley Research Center will further develop and refine the mission requirements, concepts, and technologies that will make these new and valuable commercial payload delivery/return missions viable.”

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(Images via Altius Space Machines, NASA, MDA and L2).




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