Robot special: Get a grip

2019-03-02 03:04:01

By Gregory T. Huang CLAD smartly in a white flight suit, the astronaut is a picture of concentration – carefully grasping a rod with a gloved hand and fastening it to a large aluminium frame by gently twisting the rod until it locks in place. That frame might some day support solar panels to power a space station or a moon colony. This vital job requires precise, deliberate moves and a good deal of strength, but this astronaut is up to the task. Here at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, specialists train for all kinds of important missions. But the astronaut in the helmet is the cream of the crop, and the centre’s teachers proudly track every move of the exercise. “That looks like the way I would do it,” says Ron Diftler. “It’s kind of eerie. Sometimes you could swear it’s a human doing the task.” It’s not a human, of course. Robonaut is the most dexterous robot on Earth, and Diftler is its supervisor, and manager on the project. Robonaut’s upper body looks human, with a head, torso, two multi-jointed arms, and two precisely controlled five-fingered hands. It can mimic the dexterity of an astronaut wearing pressurised gloves, and it might one day assist on space-walking missions or even operate in space on its own. The robot could be sent into orbit to spruce up the International Space Station, for instance,