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NASA's R2 bot to receive legs via SpaceX

Mar 13, 2014 — by Eric Brown 1,508 views

NASA’s Linux- and ROS-based R2 humanoid robot will soon receive a set of robotic legs in a SpaceX resupply launch, marking the first trip of ROS into space.

NASA’s second-generation Robonaut 2 (R2) was shipped to the International Space Station (ISS) in Feb. 2011, and began to see limited duty there about a year ago. A major upgrade that includes humanoid legs and an expanded battery pack was announced last May as coming soon, but apparently took longer than expected. The legs and upgrade pack are finally on the way to the ISS, however, assuming the Mar. 16 SpaceX launch goes as planned. The launch — the third for SpaceX — has been timed to coincide with NASA’s Robot Rocket Rally, held Mar. 14-16 at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Robonaut 2’s upper body and new legs
(click images to enlarge)

We learned about the launch from a blog announcement by the Open Source Robotics Foundation (OSRF), which oversees in maintaining the Robot Operating System (ROS). The R2 runs on ROS, along with Ubuntu Linux, according to an OSRF spokesperson. The current model uses another Linux distribution, but will soon be upgraded to Ubuntu and a new ROS stack when the upgrade is made on the ISS, said the spokesperson.

The open source ROS was developed principally by the now defunct Willow Garage, and has been used in a wide variety of robot projects, increasingly in conjunction with Linux. ROS/Linux hybrids include the Suitable Technologies Beam and Unbounded Robotics’s upcoming UBR-1, among many others.


The delivery of R2’s legs by SpaceX to the ISS will also be the first known trip by ROS into space. “ROS has already powered robots in the air, on the ground, on and under the water, and on every continent, but we at OSRF couldn’t be more excited about ROS journeying to outer space,” says OSRF’s blog post.

The new legs and battery pack upgrade will enable the R2 robot to climb stairs in the space station, as well as fulfill its primary intended mission: performing space walks and extra-vehicle repairs. More often, the robot will perform menial jobs like vacuuming, changing filters, flipping switches, removing dust covers, and installing handrails. NASA chose a humanoid design to avoid the need to develop and maintain specialized tools that can only be used by robots.

Robonaut 2 features
(click image to enlarge)

The 330-pound Robonaut 2 measures 3 feet, 4 inches tall from the waist, and is equipped with more than 350 sensors. Its stomach-located brain runs Linux on 38 PowerPC-based processors. The robot is operated remotely by humans, using the Robonaut Tele-operation System (RTS). This telerobotics system requires a ground- or space-based user to wear a 3D visor, vest, and pressure-sensitive gloves. (For more on the R2, see our original coverage.)

According to the OSRF, the R2 team also uses the open source Gazebo simulator to simulate R2 for development and testing. NASA and released their Gazebo models of the R2 and the ISS as open source.

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