The Space Station Is Getting Its Own Robot Butler


A prototype R2 testing out its legs on Earth. Video screenshot courtesy of NASA.

On Sunday, as part of a resupply mission to the International Space Station, a SpaceX rocket will launch while carrying in tow a set of programmed legs for Robonaut 2 (R2), a humanoid torso that is already on board the ISS. Once the legs and torso are united, R2 will be the first functional, off-world humanoid robot.

R2’s assembly will also mark the orbital debut of the open-source Robot Operating System, which powers more than 40 different robot models here on Earth.

It’s no surprise that scientists are excited to get humanoid robots functioning in space. Once assembled, R2 will be able to complete tasks that are dangerous or simply inconvenient for people. Until this point, only non-humanoid robots, like the Mars rover, have been successfully implemented in space. 

Developed jointly by NASA and General Motors, R2 has been in production on Earth for several years. The $2.5 million R2 torso arrived at the space station in 2011 via the last flight of the space shuttle Discovery.

Sometimes described as a “robot butler for astronauts,” R2 will be able to take up some of astronauts’ space station chores once it gets its legs. 

See also: How An Open Source Operating System Jumpstarted Robotics Research

ROS is favored among roboticists because it’s an open source language, which means its community is always working to fix bugs and make improvements. It is a required language for several high-profile DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) robotics projects, and was the language contestants programmed in for the 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge

Using ROS, R2 makes several improvements upon previous prototypes. Its legs are designed to give the robot movement in zero gravity, and it is capable of lifting up to 20 pounds.

Photo courtesy of NASA

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