When you think of a robot, you’re probably imagining some kind of human-shaped machine. And until now, the robotic spacecraft we’ve sent out into space to help us explore the Solar System look nothing like that. But that vision of robots is coming back, thanks to a few new robots in development by NASA and other groups.
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Fraser: Astronomy Cast Episode 449: Robots in Space. Welcome to Astronomy Cast, our weekly fact-based journey through the cosmos, where we help you understand not only what we know, but how we know what we know. My name is Fraser Cain. I’m the publisher of Universe Today. With me, as always, Dr. Pamela Gay, the Director of Technology and Citizen Science at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the Director of CosmoQuest. Hey, Pamela. How are you doing?
Pamela: I’m doing well. How are you doing, Fraser?
Fraser: I’m doing really well. I mentioned just before the show the weather finally turned and this horrible, horrible winter, endless wet spring, has wrapped up and now we’re moving into the warm part, the May, the flowers and being outside and not wishing you were in Costa Rica. These days are here and it feels great.
Pamela: Yeah, we’re still soaking, flooding, all of that stuff here, but at least it’s stopped raining. We haven’t dried out, but it’s stopped raining. I hope all of you out there who have homes near levies, who have homes near dams, who have homes in all of the different flood plains out there, have everything you care about – including yourselves – above the high water line. I know our basement is pretty flooded, but that’s all we have. It’s not bad and I hope no one has anything worse than what we have.
Fraser: You’ve got such a huge house you probably didn’t need to store a lot of stuff down in your basement.
Pamela: Well, I mean there’s always the stuff like the Christmas tree. The base of the Christmas tree is now soaked. It will live.
Fraser: Okay. Once again, I want to thank everybody for coming onto the Patreon campaign, Patreon.com/astronomycast. This is, of course, the way that we can fund this show. If you’ve donated in the past and now you want to get on board the Patreon train with us, we would really appreciate it. That goes directly to pay Susie’s salary for doing all of the production, Chad’s salary for doing the editing. That’s it. That’s where the money comes from for them. So, we really appreciate your help.
I want to thank a bunch of the $10.00 patrons this week: Gordon Dewis, Bart Flaherty, Tyrone Fong, Margo Robinson, Les Howard, Paul Disney, Tim Shu, Matt Woods, and David Truog. Thank you so much for joining us on this wonderful adventure exploring the universe. We really appreciate your help.
Alright, let’s get on with the show. When you think of a robot, you’re probably imagining some kind of human-shaped machine and, until now, the robotic spacecraft we’ve sent out into space to help us explore the solar system looked nothing like that. But that vision of robots is coming back thanks to a few new robots in development by NASA and some other groups.
I always like to bring this up how science fiction –in many ways – inspired us to become the fans of space and astronomy that we are today and, at the same time, science fiction ill-prepared us for what this space exploration future would actually look like. Where’s my Stargate? Where is my transporter? Where is my warp drive? Where is my artificial gravity? Where is my–
Fraser: Well, where is my C-3PO?
Pamela: I want a protocol droid right now. Yeah, it’s one of these things where most of those things aren’t allowed by physics as we know it and C-3PO’s just really hard to program.
Fraser: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy described a robot as your plastic pal that’s fun to be with.
Pamela: You know I think we have some of those, just not very many. At Boston Dynamics is working on building them out of more like aluminum and plastic.
Fraser: Yeah. In prep for this episode, we both watched a bunch of Boston Dynamic videos and man, those robots like, on the one hand, it’s terrifying and, on the other hand, it’s kind of sad.
Pamela: So, they have some robots that are just sort of like, “I’m just gonna watch this video on repeat and giggle for the rest of the day.” They have one called Sand Flea, which is designed to be able to jump just like a flea can. So, it has four little happy plastic high traction wheels. It’s super lightweight and it rolls around, rolls around, rolls around and, when it gets to the point where it can’t roll any further, it leans back on its hind legs and deploys what looks like it’s probably a piston or a spring of some sort and propels itself up over, around. It jumps onto roofs. It’s a little, jumping, cutie pie basically.
Fraser: But I love the episodes where some handler is kicking or pushing or shoving or stealing things from the robot and watching it struggle. It’s amazing how we anthropomorphize these robots.
Pamela: And what’s fabulous is, it’s easy as a human being to take the pause of the robot doing what is essentially the robot version of recalculating, recalculating that Ceri gives me every time I take the wrong turn. That pause while it sorts itself out we take to be the robot going, “Well, but you stole my box.”
Fraser: Why did you shove me?
Pamela: Yeah, exactly. It looks exactly the same because the robot’s not talking while it recalculates.
Fraser: Well, we’re not gonna feel sad when those things are marching in the streets rounding us up for the various robotic harvesting facilities.
Pamela: It’s true.
Fraser: So, just remember that time when you felt a little bit of sympathy for our robotic overlords.
Fraser: Who, I for one, welcome our future robot overlords.
Fraser: Harvest me last. Alright, Pamela, but in a sort of chilling precursor of that robotic nightmare, there are some really cool robots being developed – humanoid robots being developed – for space exploration.
Pamela: And not only that but they’re developing them like one body part at a time, which is particularly humorous to me. So, we’re all fans around here of the Canadarm. I think that’s safe to say.
Fraser: Yes, we are. You know we’re doing a stamp for it?
Pamela: Yes, yes and not only that but one of your upcoming bills has the Dexter robot on it as well. So, Chris Hatfield introduced that while he was in space and these robot arms were the starting point for robots in space. They flew on all of the space shuttles that flew for the last 20 years – while we had a space shuttle – and now there’s a Canadarm up on the International Space Station and it is joined by a multi-armed friend, which they named Dextre, with a French R-E at the end.
The reason they started with arms is like what’s the only reason that we exist for cats? We have thumbs. It turns out this combination of the elbow with its one degree of freedom, the wrist with its multiple degrees of freedom, and then all of these little Dextre’s fingers we have, it’s that combination of mobility and degrees of freedom that make humans able to do useful things in space. So, our useful robots start with that dexterous part.
Fraser: Right and right now, what can the robot arm – like the one that came with the space shuttle – what kinds of purposes, what would they use that for?
Pamela: So, the original Canadarm was used for everything from grabbing onto the Hubble space telescope to moving things into place while they were building the space station to holding astronauts in place while they were working on things. So, it was literally that hand up that sometimes you need when you’re moving things around.
It had the capacity to rotate things out on the hand end. It could bend to lift things out away from the space shuttle and then fold in to bring them into the cargo bay and it’s an extension. It’s a crane. It’s a rotation mechanism. All of these different positions something exactly where you need it … kind of “I need a third arm.” Well, Canada provided that third arm and it just happened to be many meters long.
Fraser: What method of operation did the Canadarm use? How did they control it?
Pamela: It was literally a fly-by-wire. So, it was not so much a robotic arm in the sense that, “A good robot is one that can do a series of complicated actions all by its lonesome.” You say build this Lincoln log house and it builds it. Assemble this General Motors car and it assembles it. The arm started out more like, “Okay, I have a bunch of joysticks. I’m an astronaut. I shall make the robot arm do things. I shall be its overlord.”
Fraser: It’s like a backhoe, right?
Pamela: It is, yeah.
Fraser: I mean I imagine like a person operating a backhoe or some kind of excavator and they’re pulling the actuator back and forth and hydraulics are making the big scoop function. So, that’s the kind of original level of robotics and, as you called it, the Canadarm. We’re proud to donate that to the future of human space exploration. So, let’s talk about the Dextre then. The Dextre was sort of the next version of that new space station. It needed a new robot arm.
Pamela: And Dextre starts to look like what science fiction trained us to think a robot should look like. It’s this little … and it’s only little compared to the International Space Station. It’s actually quite big. Its arms are 11 feet, or three and a half meters, long. So, it’s quite big, except next to the International Space Station where it happens to live. So, it is basically a central pillar and it has two very foldable, bendable, twistable arms attached to it and it is designed to do the difficult, dangerous, outside work on the space station.
There’s a whole bunch of different things on the space station that just regularly need to be swapped out. We send new ones up on various SpaceX and Russian spacecraft and somebody, or a robot, has to go outside, grab the new orbital replacement unit, go in, take the old one out, put the new one in. This is where two arms are useful and this is what Dextre does. We now have the ability with robots that they can just sort of climb around on the outside of the space station.
Fraser: Right and I think that’s what’s so interesting with Dextre, unlike the Canadarm, which was really positioned on the space shuttle. It had a point that it could reach out and try to grapple things. Dextre crawls around the outside of the International Space Station.
Pamela: It’s awesome.
Fraser: It can be on the Canadarm but it can also be moved into different positions on the station to do work and it’s got multiple arms. It can hold things, grab things, give things to astronauts. It’s a very handy robot buddy.
Pamela: And they do stick it on the end of Canadarm II, which is the new arm on the International Space Station. So, you have a multi-armed robot mounted on the end of a robot arm. It’s robots all the way down.
Fraser: Right. Now is Dextre automated or is it fly-by-wire? Is it also controlled by an astronaut?
Pamela: It can do a lot of these things, not “Dextre, go grab that off the Dragon capsule and install it on the Japanese module.” No, it’s not that smart, but it does have preprogrammed routines it can do. So, you’re not sitting there very carefully with a joystick swapping out components. It knows how to swap out components.
Fraser: So, this is the pathway that we’re on to move to a more automated, more humanoid kind of robotic system. What’s the other next kind of robot that they’re working with?
Pamela: So, Dextre lives on the outside of the space station and Dextre is actively engaged in doing stuff that astronauts no longer have to do. On the inside, in a much more protected role, we have Robonaut. It’s Actually Robonaut 2, which is called R2, which is very Star Wars-y.
Fraser: Oh, R2, yeah, D-2.
Pamela: Yeah. So, Robonaut is the upper half of a humanoid robot. It has nothing below the waist. It’s two arms. It’s a head and a torso and Robonaut 2 has been up on the space station for a few years and they’ve been working to figure out can it do indoors-y things that the astronauts need done?
There’s not a whole lot of easy to find results, but it is a path that they’re going down and, while there’s a Robonaut 2 that’s been up on the space station for a while, there are clones of the one that’s on the ISS that are down here on earth that are getting used for all sorts of different agility testing, performance testing, silliness. NASA does silly periodically, so there was around Super Bowl time a video that came out of one of the earthbound Robonaut 2s doing all of the referee’s signals for a football game to show that Robonaut 2 had that level of dexterity. It’s just kind of silly, but–
Fraser: I’ve seen versions of Robonaut attached to wheels.
Fraser: So, it’s this sort of centaur Robonaut where you’ve got the torso of Robonaut attached to rover wheels so it can roll around on the surface of some world. What’s the long term plan? I mean having a humanoid shaped robot in the space station kind of gets in the way. I mean it’s not gonna be anywhere near as capable and as dexterous as a human being in the protected area of the space station. What is the purpose of this kind of exploration?
Pamela: Well, there was recently a call I saw, a challenge for proposals to build a Robonaut 5 that would be capable of doing stuff on Mars. So, long term they’re looking at low earth orbit is probably the least hostile hostile environment that we deal with because you can come home if things go bad and where we really need the robots is to do the stuff that would imperil the astronauts’ lives or that is simply a waste of their time.
So, this is where you want to be able to program your food machines, program your air filtration machines and, if you can have happy, little robotic arms that go over and swap out your air filters, it’s one fewer thing an astronaut has to do. If you can get the robot to have the right aspect ratio, if we had a human-sized robot using a full-size vacuum cleaner to vacuum our house, I don’t think any of us would be as thrilled as we are when our happy little Roombas get it right. Roombas do the job instead of a human without getting in our way and interfering with our lives.
If we can get robots on the ISS, if we can get Robonaut to be functional and take over tasks that are necessary and tedious and do it in a way that doesn’t interfere with the astronauts and get it so that maybe Robonaut 5 is going outside on Mars planting potatoes. They won’t actually be planting potatoes, but going outside on Mars and servicing the solar panels and all the other kinds of things that are similar to what Dextre now does on the outside of the ISS. It’s these dangerous and tedious tasks where we really need the robots.
Fraser: And with Robonaut, you can also control it directly. A human being can wear kind of a virtual reality rig or wear a sort of fly-by-wire version of Robonaut and directly take control of the robot and move it around and have a look around and perform tasks as well.
Getting into and out of say the Mars base is gonna be a big pain that you’re gonna have to go and you’re gonna have to put on your space suit or, on the moon, where you have to bring in that awful lunar dust, you can imagine this future where you’ve got these robots that do a bunch of autonomous tasks, but then an astronaut can possess one and then do tasks that means that he or she doesn’t have to put on their space suit.
Pamela: And there’s actually a fascinating book that touches into the idea of basically downloading our brains into robots.
Fraser: Now you just went too far.
Pamela: Yeah. It’s a book by Christopher Golden. It’s called Tin Men and the reason that things like this get kind of sketchy is the group that is putting the most money into robot development is DARPA, which fundamentally is looking to solve military problems.
So, when we look at those cute, little robots that Boston Dynamics is doing, they have one that looks like a big old chest that you should be throwing tools in, except it’s on four legs and it’s covered in cameras and it is trained to follow around its pack leader, like a little dog, except it’s big. It will follow its leader for miles and miles and miles through crazy terrain because, instead of putting stuff on the backs of Marines, DARPA is funding them to develop it to have this robot follow the Marines around carrying their gear.
Fraser: That makes me sort of think about interstellar. Do you remember the robot that was in Interstellar, which was wonderful?
Fraser: It was one of my favorite parts actually of the whole movie because that was a very flexible robot. It didn’t have to look humanoid exactly, but it could produce arms and finer tuned things, but it could also move quickly over difficult terrain. It was a pretty interesting concept of what a future robotic companion could be.
That theme, back to science fiction, keeps coming up that we’ve got this robotic companion that –let’s be honest – we’re going to have go do the dangerous, dirty work. That is gonna be more and more useful. Science fiction I think got this right.
Pamela: And where it’s getting interesting as well is robots – because they’re not limited by joints and spinal cords and muscles – and all of the things, at the end of the day, limit our human abilities because they can do a hybrid of wheels and legs and piston launchers, they’re developing robots that have these hybrid mechanisms of motion that can go from being rolling rovers to jumping critters to climbing the sides of walls. Robots will be able to succeed in ways that mammals generally can’t and, while some insects come close, insects don’t pack the brain that these robots eventually will.
Fraser: Right. So, what’s the long game then? What do you imagine – say we’re ten, 20 years out – the first human missions are going to Mars. We’re gonna take some kind of robot companions with us. What do you think those sorts of missions are gonna look like?
Pamela: I think that it’s going to be a suite of robots and Japan really has done some interesting R&D on this where they were thinking for a while of building a robotic moon base and the idea is you have dexterous robots, robots that have finger/wrist kind of joints that are working on certain construction tasks. You have the rover-y robots that are out patrolling the area, doing the checks on do the solar panels need cleaned, do we need to do this, do we need to … the basic tasks that you always have to do. It’s this combination of the wheels of the hands of all of these different kinds working in concert that will make things functional.
There’s a lot of research currently going into swarm and flock behavior, where they have people working to train groups of robots to play sports, where they have people training groups of robots to figure out how to do inventory management together where they’ll actually start stealing from each other’s piles of supplies if one robot’s working faster than another. All of these cooperative things that they’re working on figuring out how to program into robots, that’s going to define our ability to go to Mars with maybe five humans and–
Fraser: Humans, yeah.
Pamela: Humans and a few tons of robots and the robots are just gonna be the ones out doing everything while the humans sit safely underground going, “Hey, we’re chill and we’re in the same time zone as the robots. So, if something goes wrong, we’re working in real time.”
Fraser: So, I mean what do you think the ratio will be? I mean humans to robots, to robotic companions?
Pamela: I really think that the robots – at a certain point – will begin to outnumber the humans in things like this because you can do so many different things with this and, if you haven’t gone and looked through the Boston Dynamics website, you really should.
The Boston Dynamics folks are working to build specialized robots that can go spelunking into wet, closed areas pretty much autonomously. They’re working on giant robots that will follow around their human leaders carrying large supplies. They have robots that will climb the sides of buildings. All of these different combinations are what we’re gonna need to safely build a base where we’re not constantly endangering human lives by sending them outside to climb ladders.
Fraser: Yeah, it’s interesting to me that idea that we’re gonna get a much better sense of what are human jobs and what are robot jobs? Even on Mars, robots are gonna be stealing people’s jobs.
Pamela: It’s true. It’s true.
Fraser: Well, thank you so much, Pamela. We’ll talk to you next week.
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Duration: 27 minutes