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As space station marks 15th anniversary, robotic advances hit home

Sharon Gaudin | Nov. 5, 2015
With 15 years of human presence on the station, a look at the importance of robotics to the mission.

Robonaut 2 hasn't been useful just on the station.

NASA teamed up with General Motors several years ago to take some of the technology used in the humanoid robot to create a robotic glove, known as Robo-Glove.

The mechanized glove is designed to enable astronauts, or workers in an auto manufacturing facility, do their jobs more quickly and efficiently, while also reducing any stress from doing repetitive tasks.

"With technology inside the glove, you don't use your own grip strength. You would use robotic grip strength," said Dan Huot, a NASA spokesperson. "It alleviates stress fractures or other problems from repetitive jobs."

Other robots at work

There's also a Japanese-built robot that stands not quite 14 inches tall but can hold basic conversations with people. Called Kirobo, and sent to the space station in 2013, it was the focus on an experiment to see if a robot could be used to keep astronauts company in space and to serve as a communication device between astronauts and ground control.

Just last week, Toyota reported that the work the company's engineers did on Kirobo has led them to build Kirobo Mini, a robot designed to sit inside an automobile to keep drivers company and keep them alert while they're driving.

Another robot working on the space station isn't cute and talkative but it has proven useful both in space and on the ground.

Canadarm2, one of the station's robotic arms and built by the Canadian Space Agency, works outside of the space station, moving objects and unloading visiting cargo ships.

Scientists used some of the same technology that went inside the giant robotic arm to create neuroArm, the first robot capable of performing surgery inside an MRI machine.

Doctors needed to be able to perform surgeries inside an MRI machine so they needed a robotic arm that is precise, dexterous and free of any magnetic materials. It also needed a sense of touch, much like Canadarm2 has.

They got neuroArm.

According to NASA's Huot, the robotic arm has performed 35 surgeries that otherwise would have been considered inoperable.

Off to Mars

All this robotics work onboard the space station also is helping move us closer to being able to travel deeper into space, one day exploring asteroids and even setting up a human habitat on Mars.

For years now, NASA scientists have said the robots working on the station, as well as the robots already working on Mars, will be the predecessors to the machines that get astronauts to Mars, setting up shelters, finding water on the Martian surface and turning it into drinkable water, and making fuel for astronauts to use to get back to Earth.

 

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