In big step for robotics, one robot repairs another in space

Advance could boost robotics work in deep space and in Earth-based enterprises

A robot completed repairs on another robot in space this week, advancing the possibility of future robots working in deep space, as well as Earth-based robots working in the enterprise.

"Yes, that was a big step," said Mathieu Caron, the Canadian Space Agency's mission control supervisor. "Every new repair we do, it further illustrates how useful robotics is and it shows how robotics can contribute to manned and unmanned missions. This robotic work will be even more important as you travel further from Earth."

Caron also told Computerworld that the agency's work with robots in space contributes to the ability of robots on Earth to work in remote and dangerous areas.

"One of the key points of usefulness of robotics is the ability to accomplish tasks in areas that are hostile to human beings, whether it's deep in the sea, in a mine or a nuclear power plant," he said. "We send robots where we don't want to send humans. The ability to use robotics to accomplish tasks in hazardous areas is very important and we furthered that."

The Canadian Space Agency, working hand-in-hand with NASA, wrapped up a robot repair job this week. What made this repair different is that the robotics system being repaired is connected to the outside of the International Space Station, and astronauts weren't the ones out in space doing the work.

It was repaired by another robot.

Several robots are working on the space station. There's a humanoid robot that is tasked with cleaning the orbiting station and that may one day perform maintenance outside of the station, relieving astronauts from many dangerous spacewalks. There's also a Japanese robot that was designed to hold conversations with the Japanese astronauts living onboard.

However, the real robotic workhorses on the space station are Canadarm II , the orbiter's primary robotic arm, and Dextre, a two-armed robot that also works outside of the space station.

Canadarm II is the Canadian-built, 56-foot-long robotic arm that was used to assemble the space station while in space. The robotic arm is routinely used to move supplies, equipment and even astronauts. It's also used to grab hold of cargo ships that bring supplies to the space station.

Dextre is a $200 million, Canadian-built robot that stands 12-feet tall and has a 30-foot wing span. Dextre is often used to reach into cargo ships and unload the supplies, spare parts and scientific supplies.

For the past two weeks, Dextre has been used to work on two malfunctioning cameras on the mobile robotics system, which consists of the two robotic arms, as well as a mobile base to which the robots are attached in order to move easily along the outside of the station.

Caron explained that a camera on the Canadarm, as well as one on the mobile base, have not been working properly. Both cameras are used to give mission control on the ground, as well as the astronauts on the station, the ability to see what is happening outside when they're using the robots.

The camera on the mobile base wasn't working and had been removed during a spacewalk last summer. The one on Canadarm II was still usable but delivered a hazy image.

Caron said that Dextre, while controlled by a team of engineers in Montreal and Houston, last week transferred the hazy-image producing camera from Canadarm II to the mobile base. Engineers calculated that it worked well enough for what video would be needed from that position.

Then on Tuesday, Dextre took a spare camera that had been stored inside the space station and positioned it on Canadarm and hooked it up.

Both cameras are now working.

"This is the first time we've shown that a robotics system can fix itself," said Caron. "We're very excited to have the ability to fix a system on orbit. This frees up the astronauts. Every space walk has a certain element of danger, but also it monopolizes the astronauts for not only the spacewalk but the preps leading up to it. While they're doing that, they're not available to do the science and research missions on the station."

This means that robots like Dextre can be used to repair satellites orbiting the Earth. However, it also means that as the space station needs more critical repairs, robots will be able to take on more of the work.

"If you look at the space station, the first module was launched in 1998," noted Caron. "We have an aging space station. As it gets older, it needs more maintenance, so Dextre's role becomes more and more important as we need to replace more components. It's going to be a very busy time for us."

This article, In big step for robotics, one robot repairs another in space, was originally published at Computerworld.com.

Sharon Gaudin covers the Internet and Web 2.0, emerging technologies, and desktop and laptop chips for Computerworld. Follow Sharon on Twitter at @sgaudin, on Google+ or subscribe to Sharon's RSS feed. Her email address is sgaudin@computerworld.com.

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This story, "In big step for robotics, one robot repairs another in space" was originally published by Computerworld .

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