A modified Da Vinci surgical robot is helping NASA study how robots can refuel and service space satellites, remotely controlled from Earth. The agency's Notional Robotic Servicing Mission is looking for ways that fully robotic spacecraft can perform servicing of GEO (geosynchronous earth orbit) satellites in space, avoiding the cost and danger of sending astronauts to do the same job.
In a recent demonstration, engineering and computer science graduate students at Johns Hopkins University's campus in Baltimore modified a Da Vinci surgical robot console and used it and a workstation to control an industrial robot at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center 30 miles away. The modified surgical robot also included a 3D eyepiece, which allowed the Baltimore operator to guide the remote industrial robot. The Da Vinci robot's 3D HD vision system gives operators 3D high-definition video displays for accurate depth perception, as well as an immersive experience that feels as if the robot is a virtual extension of the operator's body.
The Dextre robot in NASA's predecessor Robotic Refueling Mission transfers and installs the tools module onto its permanent home on the International Space Station. (Source: NASA)
The goal of the research is to adapt strategies used in robotic operating rooms to the tasks needed to repair and service broken satellites and other in-orbit space hardware. Repairing a satellite fuel line, for example, includes complex and delicate tasks that are not that different from the complex tasks a surgeon must perform when guiding a robot through delicate abdominal surgery. "We’re using the expertise we’ve developed in medical robotics technology and applying it to some of the remote-controlled tasks that NASA wants space robots to perform in repairing and refueling satellites," said Louis Whitcomb, a Johns Hopkins mechanical engineering professor, in a press release. Whitcomb helped supervise the Goddard Space Flight Center end of the demonstration.
The John Hopkins engineers' work was done in cooperation with West Virginia University, and funded by a research grant from NASA. John Hopkins' Sensing, Manipulation, and Real-Time System (SMART) lab has done extensive research on components and integrated systems required for computer-assisted surgery. Researchers have explored the integration of real-time imaging, such as video and ultrasound, for robotic assistance in applications such as microsurgery. Component technology research includes high-performance motor control, electromagnetic and inertial sensing, and sensor fusion.
Wow, this story spurred some interesting comments.
Alex, robots as COTS makes total sense to me, having written not long ago for COTS Journal. Thanks for that insight. And as to soldiers being COTS, I nearly fell off my seat laughing, but, you may be right. In any case, I was happy to see NASA making use of existing technology from outside its own sphere that someone else spent the R&D dollars on, another way of defining COTS.
I think Jenn's and Beth's points are also good. Using machines for low-level routine stuff, like servicing, but humans for more difficult troubleshooting makes sense.
I didn't mean to imply that we shouldn't send humans into space, Jenn. I totally agree with you. I just think for some of the more mundane chores, have an adept set of robot hands to do the work is definitely a more cost-effective way.
It's significant to note that NASA, in the face of the massive budget cuts it's been subjected to over the past several years, is taking a page from the military in moving from build-it-yourself to using COTS. COTS stands for commercial-off-the-shelf systems. It took the military a good 25 years from talking about COTS to actually doing it on a widespread basis. (Of course, now many soldiers themselves are COTS, but that's another story.) Anyway, so it makes lots of sense for NASA to do this, buy and customize rather than build from scratch, which they can't support.
I agree with you, Beth, but I don't think we should entirely rule out sending humans to space. We need people to fix the machines that may break/inexplicably stop working. Also, and a lot of people may disagree with me here, but I think that human exploration in space can be just as effective, if not more so, than robotic exploration. After all, robots can't think or articulate what they see. While the advances in robotics these days are nothing short of remarkable, there is still something to be said for a human doing the work.
It makes perfect sense that the dexterity and finesse involved in applying robotics to complex and tricky medical procedures could have huge bearing on other applications, particularly those that relate to space. It's difficult (not to mention dangerous and expensive) to put people in space and given gravity issues, those trained professionals don't have the same dexterity and flexibility for motor skills that they otherwise would have on earth. Seems like a natural solution.
Are they robots or androids? We're not exactly sure. Each talking, gesturing Geminoid looks exactly like a real individual, starting with their creator, professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Osaka University in Japan.
For industrial control applications, or even a simple assembly line, that machine can go almost 24/7 without a break. But what happens when the task is a little more complex? That’s where the “smart” machine would come in. The smart machine is one that has some simple (or complex in some cases) processing capability to be able to adapt to changing conditions. Such machines are suited for a host of applications, including automotive, aerospace, defense, medical, computers and electronics, telecommunications, consumer goods, and so on. This discussion will examine what’s possible with smart machines, and what tradeoffs need to be made to implement such a solution.