NASA Now Has Robot Gas Station for Space, Robot Miner for the Moon

NASA shows off two more examples of why space robots are such a great idea

2 min read
NASA Now Has Robot Gas Station for Space, Robot Miner for the Moon

If Opportunity and Curiosity aren't impressive enough robots for you, you should probably have your head examined, but until you can find the time for that, here are some other fairly awesome robots from NASA that have been in the news this week: one of them pumps gas, and the other one digs dirt. Yeah, maybe they don't sound awesome, but just trust us on this, okay?

Awesome NASA robot #1 is Dextre, who this week successfully completed a test refueling of a mock satellite on the exterior of the ISS. Successful is good, but what's most important about the test is that the mock satellite that Dextre refueled was mock-designed not to be refueled at all. With a few very pricey exceptions (like Hubble), satellites are not designed to be serviced, but Dextre showed that it could use tools to crack open normal satellites and pump fuel into them anyway. 

In this latest set of operations, Dextre removed two safety caps, cut through two sets of thin retaining wires, and finally transferred a small quantity of liquid ethanol into the washing machine-sized module. The latter maneuver was particularly tricky, since handling liquids in space required perfect precision to prevent dangerous leaks. The specialized tools built for the job allowed Dextre to seal the connections between the tool and the fuel valve to eliminate the possibility of leaks. Adding to the level of difficulty was the fuel hose itself, which adds additional forces that tend to pull Dextre's hands. It took the combined skills of the experienced NASA and CSA robotics controllers to pull off this first-of-a-kind space refueling demonstration successfully and without any mishap.

We're hoping for some video of this later in the week; it's not going to be the most action-packed thing you've ever seen, but the potential for refueling satellites is potentially kind of a big deal. And thanks to a space robot, it's now a full service station.

[ CSA ] via [ Engadget ]



This little guy is named RASSOR, which is obviously pronounced "razor" and equally obviously stands for "Regolith Advanced Surface Systems Operations Robot." Regolith is a fancy geology word for dirt, and RASSOR is designed to autonomously drive around the Moon and scoop up dirt with those toothy drums. The entire robot only weighs about 100 pounds, but it can haul up to 40 pounds of dirt. The idea is that RASSOR would be sent to the Moon along with a larger lander, and then autonomously rove around 16 hours a day, pouring loads of dirt into a processing plant on the lander which would extract water, hydrogen, and oxygen from it. Let the system run for long enough, and we could head to the Moon knowing that there's a nice big pile of water, air, and rocket fuel waiting there for us.

We've only just heard about RASSOR, but already NASA is designing RASSOR 2, which would be a prototype of the system that may actually get sent to the Moon. RASSOR 2 is expected to start digging around some fake lunar soil in tests by 2014.

[ RASSOR ] via [ Gizmag ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
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

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

"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.

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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