Dextre Robot Repairs ISS While Astronauts Sleep

Your friendly neighborhood robot electrician is happy to come by and fix your fried circuits, as long as your neighborhood is the International Space Station

2 min read
Dextre Robot Repairs ISS While Astronauts Sleep

Last time a circuit breaker went bad on the International Space Station, astronauts had to go outside and swap out the old breaker box for a new one. As much as you and I would love to be tasked with a spacewalk, it's a bit dangerous, and it takes up a lot of time that astronauts could better spend doing science and fooling around. Now that Dextre the space robot is operational, though, the humans get to sleep in while the robot does the housework.

Of course, space housework is a little bit different than terrestrial housework. Your house has circuit breakers too, and you may even need to replace them from time to time, but it's likely a bit less intensive than what has to happen on the ISS. Controlled from the ground, Dextre -- which according to one of its creators could "insert a DVD into a player" -- spent Sunday and Monday nights unbolting the bad breaker box and swapping it out for a new one on a nearby spare parts pallet. It was fast, easy, and there was no need for any of the human astronauts to even bother waking up.

So on the upside, having Dextre -- and other robots -- on the station to do important work is great. But the question is starting to be, is it worth it to have humans exploring space at all? We're very fragile, and keeping us alive is a complicated and expensive chore. There is definitely something to be said for having us go out and explore our solar system in person so that we can all feel as though our species is experiencing something new, but what if we could field five or ten times as many robotic exploration missions for the same amount of resources?

In any case, it's a little bit ironic that we've now got this big and capable and impervious space robot living outside the ISS, with the primary job of making sure that the puny little humans inside stay safe and sound.

[ CSA ] via [ TFT ]

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Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman
LightGreen

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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