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The Robonaut project seeks to develop and demonstrate a robotic system that can function as an EVA astronaut equivalent. Robonaut jumps generations ahead by eliminating the robotic scars (e.g., special robotic grapples and targets) and specialized robotic tools of traditional on-orbit robotics. However, it still keeps the human operator in the control loop through its telepresence control system. Robonaut is designed to be used for "EVA" tasks, i.e., those which were not specifically designed for robots.
The Shape of Things to Come
We're using a humanoid shape to meet NASA's increasing requirements for Extravehicular Activity (EVA, or spacewalks). Over the past five decades, space flight hardware has been designed for human servicing. Space walks are planned for most of the assembly missions for the International Space Station, and they are a key contingency for resolving on-orbit failures. Combined with our substantial investment in EVA tools, this accumulation of equipment requiring a humanoid shape and an assumed level of human performance presents a unique opportunity for a humanoid system.
The manipulator and dexterous hand have been developed with a substantial investment in mechatronics design. The arm structure has embedded avionics elements within each link, reducing cabling and noise contamination.
The set of EVA tools used by astronauts was the initial design consideration for the system, hence the development of Robonaut's dexterous five-fingered hand and human-scale arm that exceeds the range of motion of even unsuited astronauts.
Sensors and Telepresence Control
Robonaut's broad mix of sensors includes thermal, position, tactile, force and torque instrumentation, with over 150 sensors per arm. The control system for Robonaut includes an onboard, real time CPU with miniature data acquisition and power management in a small, environmentally hardened body. Off-board guidance is delivered with human supervision using a telepresence control station with human tracking.
Telepresence requires that a human operator control the actions of a remotely operated robot. In the case of the Robonaut project, the human operator must control forty-three individual degrees of freedom. The use of three axis hand controllers would present a formidable task for the operator. Because Robonaut is anthropomorphic, the logical method of control is one of a master-slave relationship whereby the operator's motions are essentially mimicked by the robot. The operator performs the arm, head and hand motions for the required tasks and a master-slave control mechanism duplicates the same motions in the Robot. The goal of telepresence control is to provide an intuitive, unobtrusive, accurate and low-cost method for tracking operator motions and communicating them to the robotic system.
Controlling Robonaut's highly dexterous fingers and hands is made possible by mapping the motions of the teleoperator's fingers onto the hand and finger motions of Robonaut. Finger tracking is accomplished through glove based finger pose sensors. Bend sensitive materials are used to track the orientation of each of the fingers. That information is used to command the action of Robonaut's fingers. Complex manipulation tasks are then made as intuitive as performing the task with your own hands.
Force sensors are built into Robonaut's hands. The forces imparted on Robonaut's fingers can be displayed to the teleoperator by means of a mechanical exoskeleton worn by the teleoperator.