Telepresence, Androids, and Space Exploration

13 06 2012

Our culture is replete with examples of androids and humanoid robots in space.  From David in Ridley Scott’s brand-new film, Prometheus, to the iconic C-3PO in George Lucas’s Star Wars, androids and humanoid robots are often portrayed as our trusted servants and protectors, capable of tasks we ourselves cannot or will not perform. 

Further, the related idea of a person using a surrogate, technological body to survive harsh environments is nearly as old, most recently exemplified by the title character’s lab-grown hybrid body in James Cameron’s recent film Avatar.

These notions are sensible ones for three primary reasons:

  1. Space travel and planetary exploration of any significant distance or duration presents a harsh environment from multiple fronts – psychological, physiological, temporal. 
  2. Maintaining a human form-factor means that these androids will be able to use the same equipment and vehicles as has been designed to accommodate the rest of the crew, a clearly efficient attribute. 
  3. It has been shown that human beings interact more comfortably in may cases with anthropomorphized machines – easing crew comfort.

Well, it appears that reality is finally catching up to these sci-fi archtypes (or, arguably, proving that by defining our expectations science-fiction often acts as a self-fulfilling prophecy.)

Roscosmos’s SAR-400

Russian telepresence android SAR-400 at a workstation. (Credit: RSK)

As detailed in a story from The Voice of Russia here, the Russian space agency, Roscosmos, has long been developing the SAR-400, a telepresence robot they term an “android.”  (Note: The definition of what qualifies as an android is still a little loose.)  SAR-400 is designed to act as an astronaut surrogate whenever possible, particularly during spacewalks, to reduce safety risks to the humans aboard the International Space Station (ISS). 

While no plans to send a SAR-400 to space have been announced, this project is extremely similar to a beleagured NASA project of parallel design and scope that is already aboard the ISS.

NASA’s Robonaut-2

Robotics Industry Association President Jeff Burnstein shakes hands with GM-NASA telepresence android “Robonaut 2.” (Credit: RIA)

The NASA Robonaut project, with a lengthy history dating back to conceptual work performed in 1997, is a telepresence robot sharing a nearly identical design with the SAR-400 that is intended to perform work in space and on planetary exploration missions.  (On an interesting side note, during the early 2000s Robonaut’s cosmetic “head” bore an uncanny resemblance to the highly-recognizeable Jango/Boba Fett costume helmet of Star Wars fame.) 

This culminated in 2011 with the launch of a test Robonaut-2 (R2) to the International Space Station.  While the robot has been configured to integrate with the station systems, the robot has seen little real use due heat-dissipation and other technical difficulties.  However, limited tests are proving favorable and increasing the likelihood that that future semi-autonomous telepresence robots will be considered part of the crew.

Robonaut project manager Roin Diftler is quoted as saying that their final objective is “…relieving the crew of every dull task and, in time, giving the crew more time for science and exploration.”

Implications for human space exploration

In a very direct way, this technology reopens the classic debate about whether or not the future of space exploration involves astronaut human beings at all.

Opponents to human-based space exploration cite costs and logistical complications, while proponents note that human beings still exhibit unique learnining, problem-solving, and innovation capabilities necessary for frontier work that are far beyond the ability of modern artificial intelligences. 

Bishop (341-B), a benevolent android and space crewmember from the film “Aliens.” (Credit: 20th Century Fox)

Perhaps, instead of replacing humans on the frontier, the future will be a hybrid approach as has been the case so far.  As R2’s program manager implied above, perhaps the ultimate solution is to cater to our strengths – in androids, an unblinking sentinel, able to perform repetitive or tedious tasks without tiring and work in dangerous environments without suffering the effects of stress; in humans – creative problem-solvers and pioneering explorers with the ability to innovate, and perhaps more importantly, to inspire.

In this light I’m strongly reminded of Bishop, the “synthetic person” artificial intelligence from the James Cameron film, Aliens.  A good guy strictly governed by Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Bishop is shown to accompany space crews into unknown territory, operate equipment, pilot vehicles, perform analyses, reduce data, and save the day on multiple occasions. 

Might Robonaut-2 and the SAR-400 be the equivalent of a real-life Bishop’s distant ancestors?  Time will tell.  

However, in this character, science fiction has erected a sensible guidepost for what future android integration into space crews for the purpose of enabling human space exploration would look like.

Advertisements




Views of a last space shuttle launch

26 06 2011

USSR's first and last Space Shuttle (Buran) launch, 11/15/1988. (Credit: RSK)

As NASA nears the final launch and retirement of its mainstay Space Shuttle, I think it only fitting to review another final Space Shuttle launch – one made twenty-three years ago.

In 1988, the U.S.S.R. launched its own Space Shuttle, the Buran, for what would be the first and last time.  Replay camera videos of the automated launch and landing (yes, automated – in 1988!) can be found here and here, respectively.

Watching this footage now leads me to strange musings on the Russian space program that might have been and provides an eerie foreshadowing of what it will feel like to watch Atlantis’s final launch in only a couple of weeks.  Will NASA’s shuttle fleet suffer the same fate?  Will what was once an arguably successful and certainly iconic space transportation system soon be reduced to an array of archival YouTube videos?

The Buran, which means "snowstorm" in Russian, staged at the Baikonur Cosmodrome prior to launch. (Credit: RSK)

Buran, which is an obvious response to NASA’s Space Shuttle, arose due to the perceived military potential of the shuttle’s cargo bay.  In a piercingly accurate assessment recounted by Russian rocket engineer and historian Boris Chertok, U.S.S.R. defense analysts projected that NASA’s new spaceplane could be profitable only if it flew more than twice a month.  Because this was not the case, the U.S.S.R. concluded that NASA’s shuttle was, in fact, military-subsidized.  A response was necessary, and Buran was the result.

The first flight of the Buran was an astonishing success.  A specially-designed rocket, the largest liquid-fuel rocket ever constructed, lofted Buran to an insertion orbit.  Buran separated from the rocket without incident and fired its own rockets to boost its orbiting altitude.  It remained on orbit to circle the Earth twice before automatically firing its rockets for descent and an unpiloted glide landing.

The automated landing system nailed the touchdown to within 30 feet.  (The idea that this shuttle landed itself when I still thought a Nintendo represented state-of-the-art computing power is absolutely mind-boggling!)

The eerily familiar sight of Buran lifting off from the Cosmodrome's Launch Complex 37, site 110 left. (Credit: RSK)

However, economic difficulties and political instabilities saw that the triumphant 1988 inaugural launch would be Buran’s last.  The U.S.S.R. disintegrated in 1991, leaving the expensive Buran space program unfunded and in disarray.  The Buran visited airshows periodically and remained in storage until it was destoyed in 2002 when the Kazakhstan hangar containing it collapsed due to neglect.

-A tragically undignified ending to a remarkable craft.

Now, history is ripe with ironic twists.  As it would turn out, NASA’s Space Shuttle was not military in nature, (though certainly defense-sponsored research and even a satellite deployment or two was performed from time to time,) and so the military push to produce Buran was off the mark in the first place.  However, the automated spaceplane landing Buran successfully achieved would not be replicated until just last year, when an automated military spaceplane was launched by the U.S. Air Force (see: X-37).

It looks like the Russians were a couple of decades ahead of the defense curve on that one.

Today, just as NASA’s shuttle fleet is being decommissioned, there are talks of the Russians resurrecting the Buran.  Time will tell whether or not funding and political support materializes from Russia, but perhaps America’s new, small, automated military spaceplane will once again provide the impetus for Buran to rise from the ashes.  (Frankly, I’ll take military paranoia when it spurs the advancement of space exploration hardware.)

Buran completing an unpiloted landing after its first successful orbital flight. (Credit: RSK)

So, as the sun sets on NASA’s workhorse fleet, I am given to wonder where all last-lofted spaceplanes will sit in the annals of spaceflight history.

Was the idea of the reusable orbital cargo spaceplane a needlessly complicated hiccup in the evolution of space transportation systems, or was it a visionary leap in spacecraft design?

-Something to ponder while watching launches and landings on YouTube.








%d bloggers like this: