NASA Johnson Space Center is developing a next-generation humanoid robot and control paradigm capable of performing dynamic, dexterous and perception-intensive tasks in a variety of scenarios. NASA JSC’s development approach will apply successful practices that have been used to develop multiple generations of Robonaut and related technologies in collaboration with academic, commercial and other government partners.
The broad range of specialties represented within NASA’s diverse team lends itself to the multi-disciplinary nature of robot development. To successfully design, build, and deploy a new 44 degree-of-freedom humanoid robot within an incredibly aggressive timeline it is critical to parallelize as much of the development process where possible. With this in mind, NASA’s team is loosely divided into hardware, software, and firmware functional groups. These three groups, while in constant communication and consultation with each other, began the project on parallel tracks in a co-located setting, called “The Bunker”.
The hardware teams included subgroups for manipulation, actuator development, and structural design. The manipulation team developed the hands and wrists based on the required dexterity of the task objectives. Actuator development included the design of all robot joints and worked with the firmware team to develop the embedded controller software to optimize joint performance. Design of the main body primary and secondary skeletal subsystem was performed by the structural design team. Their work also included elements for protective shells that would shield the robot from hazards in the environment. In parallel with the hardware team, the software team developed software for both manipulation and mobility. The manipulation team reviewed the task requirements and created a control interface that combined elements of autonomy with teleoperation to produce an efficient operator capability that supervises the robot’s motions. The mobility team developed walking and posture control methods for moving the robot into position to perform the required tasks. The software systems, both manipulation and mobility, were developed and tested with a virtual simulation system based on Gazebo, but enhanced where necessary with early testbed results. This parallel strategy enabled the compressed development schedule that allowed the software system to mature while the robot was being assembled and checked out. Integration of the products from these two, top level organizational units came together after the robot was completed. To complete the robot, the softgoods team designed and fabricated the protective outer layers and integrated them onto the robot. Once the robot was built and the software integrated, testing and further development ensued to expand the robot’s task capability to be proficient at the tasks required in the DRC.
Other Interesting Items of Note:
The NASA team is comprised of robotics engineers with a 20 year lineage of developing humanoid, spider-like, inspection and roving robots. Many of the DRC NASA team members played key roles in the prior development of Robonaut, the first humanoid to be flown to the International Space Station. From that heritage, NASA’s robot for the DARPA Robotic Challenge extends that legacy by deploying a more advanced, bi-pedal, full body design that can intervene in terrestrial disaster scenarios, but also walk on Mars. The descendants of the NASA DRC entry will undoubtedly play a key role in the future of planetary exploration and many of these team members will make sure that happens.