USA - NASA, GM Team to Robot for Deep Sea, Space Missions
A space exploration robot designed by NASA and General Motors (GM) is being deployed to an equally difficult-to-access and underexplored environment; the deep ocean.
The Robonaut 2 was designed to act as autonomously as possible to ease operator control down on Earth. The robot’s design features tendon-powered hands, elastic joints, and miniaturized load cells, as well as vision systems, force sensors, and infrared sensors to gather information. Finally, it is also kitted out with image-recognition software, control algorithms, and ultra-high-speed joint controllers to process and action data.
Robonaut’s efficacy was proven aboard the International Space Station but was also seen as a demonstration of robotic systems that could be deployed in a number of situations. Now, attention is turning to these other use cases and, at the forefront, underwater exploration.
Nauticus, a robotics group from the Johnson Space Center in Houston is taking Robonaut 2 and applying it to deep sea missions, adapting its design in a novel iteration dubbed Aquanaut.
“What NASA taught us is to put together robust software autonomy with a capable hardware morphology and deploy it in a remote setting,” said Nic Radford, CEO of Nauticus Robotics.
The aquatic robot is entirely electric and the size of a small car, and the suite of cameras and sensors have been moved to the “nose” of the robot. Its arms can be customized to feature different tools, depending on the task at hand.
Given the distance between operator and robot, Robonaut 2 (and Aquanaut) has to be able to perceive and interact with its surroundings as autonomously as possible and with the least amount of operator input.
“Even if you’re putting it on the space station and controlling it from the ground, there’s not a high-speed data network. Talking to the space station to control the robot is more akin to using dial-up,” said Radford.
The new iteration of the robot has applications such as service and maintenance on offshore oil wells and wind turbines, as well as aquaculture– an industry slated to grow as solutions to feed growing global populations become increasingly necessary.
“Space is amazing because it feels existential – it’s way out there, and people want to explore it,” Radford adds. “But it turns out there are also many real challenges right here beneath the ocean, and we could stand to do more innovating in the ‘blue economy.’”