HOUSTON – 4 May 11
ASU Student Lends Robonaut 2 a Hand
By: Heather L. Ogletree
Emily McBryan lives and breathes robots. Since 2004, the Arizona State University (ASU) junior has been immersed in the world of robotics. "I was introduced to robotics in junior high and developed an interest in high school as part of a FIRST robotics team led by my dad,” said McBryan. "I pursued aerospace engineering because of high school robotics and now I have this internship! The dream of going to space has never felt closer." The internship McBryan refers to is the 15 week hands-on experience offered by the Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP).
This spring, McBryan left her native Phoenix, Ariz., destined for NASA's Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston to work with Robonaut 2 (R2), the groundbreaking robot that can perform both routine and dangerous tasks in space.
It was McBryan's responsibility to continue the work of previous interns in the JSC robotics lab, improving upon R2's hands and forearms under the guidance of her NASA Mentor Jon Rogers. To her benefit, Kody Ensley, a USRP intern who worked on R2 last summer, was back to work on software for the robot. He was able to give McBryan a bit of insight from the intern’s perspective and gave her tips throughout the course of her project.
In all, McBryan came up with three new mechanical designs for Robonaut's finger actuators, which provide mobility and strength for R2's hands. Her goal was to create a bolt-free design, making the actuators lighter, less expensive, and easier to repair. She said, “I have made many different versions of my actuator design – the first one had to defy the laws of physics to work, the second version didn’t fit together, and I am working on a third, and hopefully final version. I learned a lot about design assembly.” Fortunately, the third design did work; McBryan was able to remove the need for 10 out of the 12 original bolts. In the future, designs like McBryan’s may have applications for spacesuits and could even be used beyond NASA through spinoff commercial technologies.
Another part of McBryan's project was to help put together a copy of R2B for use in testing on the ground. While recreating R2B, McBryan took the initiative to write a technical manual of sorts with pictures, detailing how to put together the different components of the robot, which will help future interns and scientists to ensure the integrity of the design.
As a bonus during her time at JSC, McBryan traveled to Kennedy Space Flight Center with the R2 team to take part in the launch of R2 on STS-133. It is not every day that someone can say that they worked with the team that designed the first humanoid robot to fly in space.
McBryan's background and experience made her an ideal candidate to work on R2. As a member of the Arizona Space Grant Robotics Team, she competed and placed at both the National Underwater Robotics Competition and the International MATE competition, and as an advocate of the FIRST robotics competitions, she has mentored high school students for the past 3 years. She noted, “It brings me back to reasons I got into engineering in the first place." It also brings her back to the basics as does her internship experience. ”Whenever I am stuck on a design feature or lost in the concept, I find that the answers lie in the basics of math and physics,” said McBryan.
Rogers commented, "Over the course of her spring internship, Emily has shown that the skills she learned in high school robotics programs are easily applied to real engineering problems. I followed a similar path from grade school through college by participating in FIRST and the co-op program, so being Emily’s mentor has been a great way to pass along my knowledge and experience."
This fall, McBryan will return to ASU to complete her degree in astronautical engineering, and then plans to attend graduate school to study her "passion," robotics and exploration.
“This internship has taught me that the limitations of robotics exists only within our minds and that we should always question the 'guaranteed.' So many things in this world are assumed to be absolute, final and the most efficient, but if you start to question these things, you can find answers to the questions you never asked," reflected McBryan. "I have seen great things come from the phrase, 'Hey, I have a really stupid idea.'"