One Giant Leap for Robotkind

by Michael Mullaney on February 24, 2011

Space shuttle Discovery lifted off a few minutes ago, commencing NASA’s 133rd shuttle flight. Commander Steven W. Lindsey and his crew have a very special guest on board, with an interesting link to Rensselaer. This guest just happens to be a robot.

Now I know what you’re thinking and, no, it’s not Watson of Jeopardy! fame. Rather, it’s the robot posing above with Rensselaer Sophomore Nathaniel Quillin. The robot’s name is Robonaut 2, but it also answers to R2.

R2 is a dexterous robot with human-like hands and arms, designed to manipulate and use many of the same tools used by astronauts. Robonaut will take up permanent residence in the International Space Station, where he’ll be tested and improved upon for several years.

The thought is that Robonaut could one day serve as an assistant or stand-in for astronauts during spacewalks, or perform overly dangerous or complex tasks. That’s the goal, but the current incarnation of R2 can’t withstand the rigors of a spacewalk. He’s strictly an indoor robot.

I mentioned a Rensselaer connection to R2, and it’s a pretty significant link. Nathaniel, seen in the photo above, spent two semesters and two summers at Johnson Space Center near Houston working directly on the R2 project. This is a really prestigious, impressive level for any researcher to be functioning at – and he’s still an undergraduate student.

During his time at NASA, Nathaniel wrote the computer code used to help debug R2’s hardware. Additionally, he helped write code for the graphical user interface that NASA researchers use to control R2. This control software creates 3-D visualizations that allows researcher to see how R2 will carry out their commands, prior to sending the actual commands for the robot to execute. All in all, he estimates he contributed hundreds of thousands of lines of code.

Here’s a bit from today’s Times Union Story on Nathaniel:

Quillin is looking forward to seeing the first video images of R2 operating in space. He said he is impressed with how quickly NASA was able to get a humanoid mechanical robot in space, and hopes to someday work for the agency to see other projects come to fruition. He plans to return to Johnson in the summer of 2012, where he’ll get to see the operation of R2 firsthand. He hopes to sit at the controls at some point.

“Code that I wrote is going to be used in space,” he said. “That’s awesome.”

A very nice aside, during his time at NASA, Nathaniel helped a brave young lad’s Make A Wish Foundation wish come true. Nathaniel orchestrated a day of fun for his fellow space enthusiast by giving the boy a tour of NASA and Robonaut.

Just for fun, below are two pictures of Nathaniel at NASA mission control:

And another of him giving a talk about R2:

Lastly, Rensselaer is quite prolific at sending fascinating research into space. Below are a few great examples:

In August 2009, an experimental heat transfer system designed by Rensselaer professors Joel Plawsky and Peter Wayner was installed in the International Space Station (ISS), where it will remain for several years. Read about it here, and read Plawsky’s guest post on The Approach here.

In November 2009, wear-resistant, low-friction nanomaterials created by Professor Linda Schadler were blasted into orbit aboard Space Shuttle Atlantis, attached to the outer hull of the ISS, and exposed to rigors of space. More info can be found here.

In May 2010, Assistant Professor Cynthia Collins sent an army of microorganisms into space, to investigate new ways of preventing the formation and spread of biofilms, or clusters of bacteria, that could pose a threat to the health of astronauts. Check out the story here and a blog post here.