HOUSTON, Texas — 19 Oct 10
Salish Kootenai College Student Gives Robonaut 2 Two Thumbs Up
By: Heather L. Ogletree
Robots are everywhere. From ATMs to robotic dogs to characters in blockbuster films, robots are now engrained in the framework of American culture and life.
But what is the purpose of a robot? While some robots are generated mainly for entertainment value, a majority of robots are built to perform the tasks of a human counterpart.
By Webster’s definition, a robot is “1: a machine that looks like a human being and performs various complex acts (as walking or talking) of a human being; 2: a device that automatically performs complicated often repetitive tasks, or 3: a mechanism guided by automatic controls.”
This summer, Kody Ensley, a descendant of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes of the Flathead Indian Reservation in Pablo, Mont., was selected to complete project entitled “Robotic Sensing and Control” at NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) as a part of the Undergraduate Student Research Project (USRP).
When Ensley accepted his internship offer he did not realize the grand scope of the project he would be completing. He stated, “When I heard the word internship, I immediately assumed I would be getting coffee for someone.” But once he arrived at JSC, Ensley asserted, “I was simply stunned by the respect and latitude I was given….I worked on real projects; I was encouraged to give my opinion and contribute to existing projects.”
During his 10 week internship, Ensley worked with Scott Askew and several other engineers in JSC’s Software, Robotics, and Simulation division on hardware and software for systems including Robonaut 2 and the Lunar Electric Rover. This project completely suited the computer engineering major whose love of robots began as a child who had a knack for constructing Lego masterpieces and solving puzzles.
“I was very excited to work with Robonaut 2 as he is the pinnacle of ‘robot cool’,” said Ensley. “What I found particularly interesting about [R2], were his hands and fingers. This led me to a project where I was able to build a testbed for evaluating new designs for future Robonaut fingers.”
One of the main features of R2 is his dexterity. It allows R2 to use the same tools as astronauts, avoiding the need to create specialized tools for robots. However, USRP Mentor Askew noted, “While in science fiction and entertainment robots are portrayed as independent entities, today’s robots involve a significant amount of human supervision and interaction. NASA’s Robonaut 2 is a system designed to work side by side astronauts performing the role of assistant.”
R2 can potentially increase the safety of places like the International Space Station byperforming simple, repetitive, or especially dangerous tasks. According to Askew, “They are called the three D’s. If it’s dangerous, dirty, or dull, robots are often called upon to perform the work.”In fact, R2 is scheduled to join the ISS team as part of the STS-133 mission. Another part of Ensley’s project was dedicated to computer programming for Project M, one possible future application for R2. According to the JSC website for Robonaut 2, “Project M is a proposed project to land an operational humanoid robot, [like R2], on the moon in 1000 days.”
Ensley observes, “With programming, rarely does the same person who built the code update and maintain it later.” Knowing that this project would be passed onto other coders and possibly to other USRP interns, he made sure to document his program in order to make it “easy for another coder to jump into [it] later.”
For these future JSC interns, Ensley advised, “Expect to be challenged, keep a notebook of your daily activities, umbrellas are useless in Texas rain, and coffee is the universal friend maker.”
In regard to his experience, Ensley reflected, “This internship has shown me a large world of possibilities and I could not be more excited about my future; a future I hope will include working at NASA.”