It’s not exactly Hal or R2D2, it’s more of a C3PO. The International Space Station’s (ISS) robotic crew member Robonaut 2 (R2) has been onboard the ISS since 2011, performing experiments to test its functionality in microgravity. These experiments have become increasingly complex in order to assess the possibility of R2 taking over routine tasks aboard the ISS and assisting its crew. While Hal bared little resemble to its human crew, Robonaut 2 has a torso, arms, hands and a head that are attached to a post inside the station.
Recently, R2 received mobility upgrades from the Expedition 4 crew, which included both hardware and software upgrades. R2 is boasting new processors, fans and a power distribution board, while NASA upgraded the software for the processors from the ground. Thanks to the Space-X cargo mission in April, R2 will soon have a pair of legs. While R2 resembles its Star Wars counterpart in many ways, its legs are very different. With a nine-foot span when fully extended, they look more like Go-Go Gadget meets Gumby with seven joints in each leg. At the end of the legs are not feet, but an end effector that will allow R2 to attach itself to existing handrails and sockets. Each end effector has an optical system so its approach and grasp can be automated.
NASA has a long history of using robotics, very often to go where no human can venture, including the Moon and Mars rovers. R2 is very similar, in that it will perform maneuvers in space for the benefit of science. The exception is that R2 will not be the main collector of data and samples, but will instead be taking over maintenance and other routine tasks from the crew so they can focus on conducting more experiments aboard the ISS. R2 is the first of its kind to truly resemble the human form, and is thereby capable of performing similar tasks. There are also benefits of this technology back on Earth as the knowledge gained from R2 development is already assisting people with disabilities and robotic exoskeletons for astronauts.
With upgrades to its torso, R2 will eventually work on the outside of the spacecraft, reducing the risk to astronauts. Using virtual reality gear, the crew can take over the robot to direct its movements and perform tasks without being physically present. While this will come in handy on the ISS, this is just the test bed for the technology. Everything learned and developed for ISS will go on to be used in other inhospitable environments. Just imagine how useful this technology will be when capturing and examining an asteroid or on future missions to Mars.