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First Humanoid Robot Set to Fly in Space

January 4, 2011
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Robonaut 2 (R2), which was jointly developed by NASA and General Motors, makes its visual decisions using the imaging software Halcon from MVTec.

The Robonaut 2 (R2) sees what it is doing thanks to Halcon's image processing. NASA astronaut Michael Barrett, mission specialist of STS-133, shakes hand with R2 harmlessly. Left, NASA project manager Ron Diftler looks on amused.

At the beginning of February 2011, the first humanoid robot astronaut flies into space. The Robonaut 2 (R2), which was jointly developed by NASA and General Motors, makes its visual decisions with the imaging software Halcon by MVTec (Munich, Germany).

The Discovery space shuttle will be launched as mission STS-133 on its very last space flight. The destination of this shuttle mission is the international space station (ISS). On board the Discovery are six human astronauts and one new colleague, the first of its “species”: It is the first humanoid robot ever in space and it is called Robonaut 2 (R2). As part of its payload, the Discovery carries an Italian multi-purpose module called Leonardo in its cargo bay. R2 travels safely encased in a special container inside of Leonardo.

The Robonaut 2 is able to see autonomously and is therefore able to independently make decisions. The robot astronaut has fully functional camera eyes and hands used for gripping and working. R2 comes with these skills as a result of sophisticated image processing which was developed by NASA using the algorithms of the standard software Halcon by MVTec.

The software package Halcon includes all necessary technologies for three-dimensional (3-D) image processing. It is used to detect the pose of objects in 3-D space from stereo images and to process the information in real time. Thus, R2 can see three-dimensionally and decide in fractions of a second where and how its hands will pick up and deposit objects.

During an initial testing phase, the robot will work in a lab onboard the space station. Later, R2 will assist human astronauts with various tasks inside the spacecraft, and some day will even be available for extra-vehicular activity. As future generations of R2 are developed, NASA hopes to use the humanoid robot for interplanetary travels such as landing on the Moon, Mars or a Mars moon. At this stage, Halcon is already armed for this purpose.

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Charles J. Hellier has been active in the technology of nondestructive testing and related quality and inspection fields since 1957. Here he talks with Quality's managing editor, Michelle Bangert, about the importance of training.
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