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TechWatch: Robonaut and the “Soldierbots” of the Future

The last flight of the space shuttle Discovery to the International Space Station in February 2011 marked the dawn of a new era – in space and on Earth. When the shuttle’s six-human crew returned to Earth, a seventh humanoid was left behind as the International Space Station’s first permanent resident.

More C3P0 than R2D2, NASA’s R2 (Robonaut 2nd Generation) was built to standard human male dimensions. Although legless in this iteration, R2’s upper torso has a distinct head, two arms and the most advanced mechanical hands ever produced.

Legs are optional in the zero-G environment of the ISS, but R2 was designed to walk in his second configuration – as a member of the factory team at General Motors, which partnered with NASA in creating what program officials term the first humanoid robot capable of performing real work. NASA also has plans for a two-legged version as part of Project M – a proposal to land a Robonaut on the moon in 1,000 days (M, in this context, is the Roman numeral for 1,000).

Based on a project start on March 25, 2010, that would have the Robonaut literally walking in the footsteps of America’s Apollo astronauts by late December 2012 – exactly 40 years after the last human set foot on the lunar surface during the Apollo 17 mission.

The same advanced electro-mechanical joint technology successfully used in R2’s upper body will be leveraged to create the robot’s legs. According to the Project M Whitepaper, that will give it “an unprecedented capability to navigate and perform work” in the one-sixth G lunar environment. NASA also predicts it will have benefits beyond a mere feat of engineering.

“A dexterous robot, equipped with human-size arms, hands and legs, has the unique ability to test out systems in space for future human missions that is not possible with any other robot, providing early performance data that can be utilized to improve designs, enhancing crew safety and mission performance,” the whitepaper continued. “After proving itself out on its first lunar mission, Robonaut will be well-positioned to prepare future human sites and act as a caretaker for lunar assets between missions.”

Project M also is intended to stimulate students to return to the difficult study of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), in which the U.S. has been in steady decline for decades. But the rigors of a moon walk and the intricacies of working next to human auto workers on Earth also opens the door to future military applications.

While there are no current requirements for a humanoid “soldierbot” – with its inevitable comparison to the human-eradicating Terminator movie robots – the military is putting considerable effort into developing a wide range of robotic systems. That includes some with legs, such as Big Dog, a four-legged mechanical “mule” that, while far too noisy for operational use, nonetheless proved a walking robot can handle rough terrain.

Just as the NASA/GM robot uses tools designed for human hands and can operate equipment and move through spaces intended for humans, a military Robonaut could take on an even greater range of dull-dirty-dangerous jobs various robotic systems already are performing alongside human warfighters on today’s battlefields.

The Terminator image may be a greater obstacle than technology, however. It was a concern first addressed in a 1942 short story by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov’s “Three Laws of Robotics”:

1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm

2. A robot must obey any orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law

3. A robot must protect its own existence, as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law

According to John Olson, director of NASA’s Exploration Systems Integration Office, those precepts are part of Robonaut.

“We have some of the sharpest roboticists on the planet working on this effort and we are looking to leverage an optimal mix of capabilities, performance, safety and mission success. So whatever elements it takes to accomplish those, our folks are pursuing,” he says. “R2 is unique in the sense it was designed specifically for close human/robot interaction, with a compliance level that has safety in mind.”

The most difficult of Asimov’s Laws – on which NASA and GM are heavily focused, but potentially problematic for the military – is the first.

Current military robots, such as the weaponized Predator UAV, are fully controlled by human operators when it comes to taking lethal action. But continued advances in artificial intelligence, sensors, ultra-high-speed network-centric communications and ever faster microprocessors inevitably will lead to robots being in places and situations where far slower human decision-making and control could put friendly forces or civilians at risk. For a “robo-soldier,” the answer may lie in the evolving range of less-than-lethal weapons.

Whatever role Asimov’s Three Laws may play in the future, the presence of a working humanoid Robonaut on the space station, perhaps next year on the moon and ultimately on the battlefield, will forever change the relationship between man and machine.


J.R. Wilson has been a full-time freelance writer, focusing primarily on aerospace, defense and high...