NASA has two robots that will, hopefully, be operating on the International Space Station (ISS) this year. There’s Robonaut, a humanoid (complete with legs) that will be on its way up there later this year, as well as Astrobee, a family of three free-flying robotic cubes that are already on the ISS as of a few weeks ago.
Astrobee and Robonaut are totally different in both form and function, but that just means that they have skills and abilities that complement each other, and the teams working on these robots have been making plans for on-orbit teamwork. To learn more about this collaboration, we spoke to Astrobee technical lead Trey Smith and Robonaut project manager Julia Badger.
IEEE Spectrum: It will be exciting to have so many robots on the ISS! What can we expect from this collaboration? And looking beyond the ISS, with missions like the Gateway lunar spaceship, how will Robonaut and Astrobee help with NASA’s future robots?
Trey Smith:Everybody at NASA is really excited about work on the Gateway space station that would be in near lunar space. We don’t have definite plans for what would happen on the Gateway yet, but there’s a general recognition that intra-vehicular robots are important for space stations. And so, it would not be surprising to see a mobile manipulator like Robonaut, and a free flyer like Astrobee, on the Gateway. And when you look at the business cases for different scenarios that you can use those robots, one that always comes up as important is logistics management.
Julia Badger: We have a research project that we’ve been working on for many years with the ground units that they’re real keen to demonstrate almost the exact things we’ve been doing on the ground, on-orbit. Being able to climb, being able to find logistics modules and retrieve them, interfacing with Astrobee—we’ve had some demonstrations here on the ground that we can do that. Actually our first major milestone once we get on-orbit after checkout is locating and retrieving a logistics bag on-orbit with the two robots. It’ll be really cool! I’m sure some of it will be staged because we can only go in the US hab, but still, it’ll be a really cool demonstration of what the capabilities will be.
How did the idea of having such different robots working together come about? And what specific tasks do you envision them doing?
Smith: We’re really excited to have the two robots cooperating with each other. The project that funded both robots, Human Exploration Telerobotics, always envisioned them teaming. We’ve looked at some different scenarios— if you have an un-crewed cargo vehicle that shows up stuffed to the rafters with cargo bags and it docks with the Gateway when there’s no crew there, it would be very useful to have intra-vehicular robots that can pull all those cargo bags out, unpack them, stow all the items, and then even allow the cargo vehicle to detach before the crew show up so that the crew don’t have to waste their time with that.[shortcode ieee-pullquote quote=""Once Robonaut is told where a bag is by Astrobee, Robonaut can go find it and retrieve it. It's cool, it's this nice multi-robot collaboration." expand=1]
Badger: Astrobee is able to be better at exploration, and it can use an RFID sensor to interface with logistics bags. So basically the bags have these RFID tags, Astrobee has a RFID reader, so it can find the bags. Once Robonaut is told where a bag is by Astrobee, Robonaut can go find it and retrieve it. It’s cool, it’s this nice multi-robot collaboration.
Smith: We have a payload for Astrobee called RFID Recon; the intent of it is to be able to ping RFID tags. On the ISS, there’s an experimental network of RFID readers. The idea is to hook them up to the inventory database. So, when an RFID tag item moves through a hatch, you’d see that event. When it goes into a smart cabinet, you’d see that event. But those readers don’t necessarily do a great job of covering the entire volume of the space station, so Astrobee could help cover that—if something is velcroed to the wall, Astrobee could fly by and pick up that it’s there. Or, it could even search for a specific item. So the scenario that we’d be looking at [with Robonaut] is using that RFID recon payload on Astrobee to tie down the location of an object, and then sending Robonaut over to retrieve the object.
Another scenario that we’ve been interested in is leak detection and leak patching. If Astrobee carries an ultrasonic microphone array, it could use that to help detect the location of a leak—basically, you’re listening for the whistling sound of a leak. And then Robonaut could come in to patch it.
Both Smith and Badger made it clear that neither Robonaut nor Astrobee will be the actual robots to show up on Gateway. The robots that make it all the way out to lunar orbit sometime in the next decade or so may look very similar to the current generation of ISS robots, but at the very least they’ll need to be radiation-hardened and have software that can be relied on to function for extended periods without a human coming by and hitting the reset button every once in a while. The design of those robots, though, will be based on the experiences that Robonaut and Astrobee have on the ISS over the next few years.
From the sound of things, once both Astrobee and Robonaut have been checked out on-station, these collaborative tasks will be a fairly high priority. And since the robots have a substantial amount of autonomy, requiring minimal crew tending, we’re optimistic that it’ll actually happen sooner rather than later. Hopefully, NASA will keep us up to date on how things go—and if they don’t, we’re totally willing to visit the ISS in person just to see what’s up.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.