It looks like NASA's space robot known as Robonaut 2, or R2, will have some Earthly spinoffs in the near future. The permanent robotic resident of the International Space Station represents a major development in man and machines working together in space. Humanoid from the middle up, R2 can share tools and workspaces with astronauts thanks to its impressive dexterity. This technology, taken on a smaller scale, could revolutionize the way factory workers complete repetitive manual tasks.
R2's ability to use human tools was one of the principle design requirements when engineers, researchers, and scientists from GM and NASA began collaborating on the program in 2007. NASA and GM have a history of collaborating in space; GM was involved in development of the navigation systems for the Apollo missions and a key player in building the Lunar Rover. This latest venture stands to benefit manual workers in both organizations by making manual labour less manual and laborious.
There's no shortage of research to prove that continuously gripping the same tool or making the same movement with your hand leads to repetitive stress injuries. It's an occupational hazard facing workers in factories like GM's. Untreated, most repetitive stress injuries are painful, and require worker downtime to sort themselves out. In rare cases, a muscle or nerve can sustain sufficient damage such that the only recourse is surgery. The new NASA/GM technology, called Robo-Glove, applies R2's strength and dexterity to humans.
R2's dexterity is achieved from a mix of leading-edge sensors, actuators, and tendons that are analogous to the nerves, muscles, and tendons in a human hand. Robo-Glove was inspired by the finger actuation system of R2. The actuators that make Robonaut move its hand have been embedded into the upper portion of the glove to provide grasping support to human fingers. Robo-Glove uses pressure sensors in its fingertips, similar to those that give R2 its sense of touch, to detect when the wearer is holding a tool. The presence of a tool triggers the synthetic tendons, causing them to retract and pull the fingers into a gripping position. The glove will hold this pose until the sensor is released — until the human wearer lets go of the tool.
For NASA, applications of Robo-Glove in space are significant. While nothing in orbit has any weight, force is still required to, say, install a piece of hardware. Working in a spacesuit is hard enough, so taking some of the strain off the astronauts would be greatly beneficial. If a turning a tool requires 15-20 pounds of force during some operation, the glove could apply part of that force, cutting the astronaut's workload down to five or 10 pounds. It's already off to a promising start. "The prototype glove offers my space suit team a promising opportunity to explore new ideas, and challenges our traditional thinking of what extravehicular activity hand dexterity could be," said Trish Petete, division chief of the Crew and Thermal Systems Division at NASA's Johnson Space Center.
The first Robo-Glove prototype was completed in March 2011. A second version, the current version, was finished three months later. This second prototype weighs about two pounds including the control electronics, actuators, and a small display for programming and diagnostics. A lithium-ion power-tool battery powers the system. The wearer keep the power source nearby thanks to a belt-clip. A third-generation prototype is already under development. It will use repackaged components to reduce the size and weight of the system to create a self-contained unit.
The implications for shop workers on Earth are the same, but on a much greater scale; there are, after all, thousands more people working in factories than in space. Taken to the factory floor, Robo-Glove technology could improve safety and increase productivity. It seems like only a matter of time before some spinoff of the Robo-Glove becomes a household staple, saving us all from the repetitive stains of folding laundry.
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