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

Sharon Gaudin | May 30, 2014
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.


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