Researchers at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, Houston, TX, in collaboration with General Motors and Oceaneering, designed a state-of-the-art, highly dexterous, humanoid robot, Robonaut 2 (R2), and sent it to the International Space Station where it remains, working alongside human astronauts.

Fig. 1 –The Human Grasp Assist device, known as Robo-Glove, resulted from the Robonaut 2 (R2) project. (Credit: NASA)
R2 is made up of multiple component technologies and systems—vision systems, image recognition systems, sensor integrations, tendon hands, control algorithms, and much more. Its nearly 50 patented and patent-pending technologies, NASA says, have the potential to be game-changers in multiple industries, including logistics and distribution, medical and industrial robotics, and more.

The robot was recently selected as the NASA Government Invention of the Year for 2014. While R2 resides aboard the International Space Station, many of the technologies developed for it are being adapted for use on Earth, helping to give it the distinction of an outstanding government invention.

R2 technologies can aid in a variety of medical applications, ranging from telemedicine to handling the logistics of medical procedures. Similar to the assembly line on a factory floor, a hospital environment involves repetitive tasks that are ripe for automation. R2 technologies would be advantageous during situations where a biomedical hazard poses risks to humans, such as a contagious outbreak or a combat situation. For more routine daily use, it can handle time-consuming tasks of counting, sorting, inspecting, and processing. By having a robot handle these activities, it frees up hospital staff to focus on the work that humans are best at and it also reduces the likelihood for human errors.

Advanced technology spans the entire R2 system and includes: optimized overlapping dual arm dexterous workspace, series elastic joint technology, extended finger and thumb travel, miniaturized 6-axis load cells, redundant force sensing, ultra-high speed joint controllers, extreme neck travel, and high resolution camera and IR systems. The dexterity of R2 allows it to use the same tools that astronauts currently use and removes the need for specialized tools just for robots.

Working with Dr. Zsolt Garami from Houston Methodist Research Institute, R2 was put through the paces to prove its use as a device enabling telemedicine, or the use of electronic communications to conduct medical procedures. After some quick training, an R2 teleoperator was able to guide the robot and perform an ultrasound scan on a medical mannequin. Humans at the controls are able to perform the task correctly and efficiently by using R2’s dexterity to apply the appropriate level of force and can track their progress using R2’s vision system. The teleoperated R2 also experimented using a syringe as part of a procedure further demonstrating the robot’s capabilities for telemedicine. This demonstration of robotic capabilities could one day result in the ability for physicians to conduct complex medical procedures on humans in remote locations, whether on the Earth’s surface or even in low Earth orbit.

Technologies resulting from R2 include a robotic glove, a robotic exoskeleton, and telemedicine applications. The robotic glove, or the Robo-Glove, was developed as a grasp assist device after NASA and GM realized there was overlap between what astronauts needed in space and what factory workers could use on the ground. The Robo-Glove could help astronauts close their gloves and reduce the amount of effort they apply while conducting tasks, similarly to the way power steering helps to steer a car. The glove also may help the factory workers to grip a tool longer with less discomfort by reducing the amount of force that they need to exert. This could result in less fatigue and fewer stress injuries.

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