Robots have been going into space for a long time, as satellites, probes, and landers. One of the earlier robotic probes, the Voyager 1, launched in 1977, is still operating, and will soon leave the solar system along with Voyager 2. Other robotic spacecraft include the Juno, which is on its way to Jupiter; the Curiosity Mars rover, described below; and various Mars landers and space probes.
But some space robots don't get quite that far. Instead, they're either up in the International Space Station orbiting Earth, being tested as reentry vehicles in low-Earth orbits, or still on Earth undergoing R&D.
Click on the image below to see 13 examples of these space-worthy machines.
Justin is a humanoid robot being developed by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) for tasks that are too dangerous for humans, such as repairing orbiting satellites. Like humanoid robots designed for home use, humanoid space robots must be dexterous, mobile, and capable of carrying out tasks that require complex manipulation of tools and objects. They also need to be intelligent and have the ability to undertake manipulations that involve the use of both hands. Justin has compliant-controlled lightweight arms and four fingers on each of its two hands. It's remotely operated by a human, and its mobile platform allows it to operate autonomously at longer ranges. The platform has individually movable, spring-born wheels to match the robot's upper body movements during manipulation tasks. Also contributing to the robot's autonomy are photonic mixer device (PMD) sensors and cameras that allow it to make 3D reconstructions of its environment. Eventually, Justin will be mounted on its own satellite. (Source: German Aerospace Center)
I agree, Rob. Up to now, most of the humanoid robots were designed to alleviate the psychological discomfort of dealing with a machine (consider Marilyn Monrobot's stand-up comedy robot). In space, that's the least of concerns.
Rob, I think you're right about that. Humanoid robots are mostly designed to interact with humans or equipment built for humans. They're not particularly useful otherwise, and would be over-designed in many cases, or just not functional.
Rob, I think the primary motivation for robot anthropomorphism is advertising. If you're trying to get more funding for your project and the way you do that is by demonstrations to non-engineers, then you want to make it as visually compelling as possible. People easily identify with the human form. However, if you're trying to do real science, function has to come first.
Then again, symmetry forces a lot of design choices that just happen to be anthropomorphic, or, at least, naturally inspired. For example, if you have two robotic manipulators and a set of sensors to observe what the manipulators are doing, you'd naturally want to put the sensors in between them and on a mast that can point the sensors in the desired direction. It's not biologically inspired, it's just a logical configuration. And if encasing the sensors in a humanoid head sells the project without affecting funtionality, why not do it?
Ann, I understand that fifedoms exist in inducstry, and there's nothing wrong with healthy competition since it often generates multiple good ideas. There are brilliant minds in each NASA center, and I think we'd get better results if they colaborated more instead of sabotaging each other's work.
Ann, I'm not too surprised there are not many humanoid robots in space. I would think function trumps all other considerations in space. Thus the robots are going to resemble what is required for function.
Thanks for the history, SparkyWatt. I thought I remembered it was a cutback in fed funds, not a lack of will from NASA, that stopped further moon exploration. I agree with Warren, they could have been long-term stars with continued exploration. Cutting their funds short was a tragedy.
btwolfe, I've read a lot about Robonaut's design, and you're right, there's a lot available online about it. Just thought you might have some other interesting tidbits to share, but we understand if you can't. Your comments about NASA fifedoms sound a lot like other industries, as well.
There's plenty of online resources about Robonaut and related work on the NASA website and elsewhere, so I won't elaborate. If it's not redily aparent, Robonaut 2, Centaur, and Spidernaut are all from the same team of engineers.
As to other blogger's comments about why NASA has not been more of a leader in innovation, it's partially because there's a lot of fifedoms in the agency and some of them will not be content unless their group is the only one doing a certain of type of work. I've seen plenty of comments and behavior by NASA "bosses" that serves to exclude other divisions (e.g., JSC vs Ames vs JPL) to the detriment of the agency as a whole. When these groups are forced to work together, they only do so grudgingly. Most of the NASA people are truly interested in doing good work, but it only takes a few power-hungry people to spoil it for the rest.