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March 30, 2011

Terre Haute native, Rose grad a member of Robonaut 2 development team

TERRE HAUTE — Terre Haute native and Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology alumnus Kris Verdeyen has taken one small step forward for robotics through February’s launch of the first human-like robot to space to become a permanent resident of the International Space Station.

Robonaut 2, or R2, was developed jointly by NASA and General Motors under a cooperative agreement to develop a robotic assistant that can work alongside humans, whether they are astronauts in space or workers at GM manufacturing plants on Earth. The 300-pound R2 consists of a head and a torso with two arms and two hands. The space shuttle Discovery was launched in late February as part of the STS-133 mission. Once the robot is aboard the station, Verdeyen and other engineers will learn how dexterous robots behave in space. The hope is that through upgrades and advancements the robot could one day venture outside the station to help spacewalkers make repairs or additions to the station or perform scientific work.

“It’s about as cool a job as a hardware guy could hope for,” said Verdeyen, a NASA electrical robotics engineer and a member of the Robonaut development team, shortly after the shuttle’s launch. “If you’re talking about the evolution of humans and robots working together, these kinds of things now seem possible. It’s a big step in the evolution of human/robotic work.”

The dexterous robot not only looks like a human but also is designed to work like one. With human-like hands and arms, R2 is able to use the same tools station crew members use. In the future, the greatest benefits of humanoid robots in space may be as assistants or stand-ins for astronauts during spacewalks or for tasks too difficult or dangerous for humans.

“R2 is faster, safer, reaches farther and is smaller than the original R1B was, by a long shot. R2 can do more real work than any other humanoid in the world,” stated Verdeyen, a 2000 Rose-Hulman electrical engineering graduate.

“While we did build R2 to be a very advanced robot, it isn’t meant to showcase anything. The robot is built to do work,” he says. “While NASA has been known to occasionally launch showpieces or demonstration units to the International Space Station, R2 weighs over 300 pounds and takes up a fair bit of room. It would be a huge waste not to have R2 do real work.”

Verdeyen has worked on versions of the Robonaut project for all of his 11 years with NASA. However, Robonaut 2 wasn’t conceived for space travel. In fact, Verdeyen states that Robonaut 2 was simply a lab experiment until mid-2010. At that point, engineers started working to get the robot ready to both survive the turbulent trip to the space station and operate there over a long period of time.

“In January of 2010, it became apparent that there was enough spare payload on STS-133 that we could put a Robonaut on ISS. Could we have one ready to launch in eight months? Our bluff had been called,” Verdeyen said.

A challenge was retrofitting all of the robot’s electronics to withstand radiation in space. R2 underwent extensive testing in preparation for its flight. Verdeyen built a new safety circuit when the original system failed under radiation testing. He also rewrote embedded software and took over responsibility for some of the hardware originally designed by a GM engineer.

Vibration, vacuum and radiation testing along with other procedures being conducted on R2 also benefit the team at GM. The automaker plans to use technologies from R2 in future advanced vehicle safety systems and manufacturing plant applications.

Robonaut 2 has 38 Power PC processors, including 36 embedded ones. The embedded chips are running in the machine’s joints -- its hands, shoulders, waist, elbows, neck and five large joints in each arm. Each of the embedded processors control senses and movement in each joint. However, the embedded processors don’t communicate with each other; each one communicates with the robot’s main computer chip.

“It will be a while before we will let the robot walk without a safety harness, but the day is coming,” Verdeyen said. “Working with NASA has given me the opportunity to put hardware in space. What can be better than that?”

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