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GM, NASA-developed Robonaut 2 visits GM's Warren Technical Center


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GM, NASA-developed Robonaut 2 visits GM's Warren Technical Center



It's a robot. It's an astronaut. It's a robonaut.

Robonaut 2, a.k.a. R2, described by its creator, General Motors, as the strongest, fastest, most dexterous and most technologically advanced humanoid robot in the world, visited GM's Warren Technical Center Wednesday in anticipation of its "twin" heading off to the International Space Station later this month.

The white-suited, gold-visored robot, which GM developed with NASA, showed off its strength, ability to handle flexible materials and lifelike fingers.

Other automakers, such as Toyota and Honda, also continue to develop advanced humanoid robots.

Possible automotive applications include adaptive lane-changing and adaptive cruise, according to Alan Taub, GM's vice president of global research and development.

R2's DNA also could be used to improve robots currently working in manufacturing operations.

"It allows us to do work and do it safely ... side by side with astronauts or with workers here on Earth," said Marty Linn, principal engineer of robotics for GM Manufacturing.

GM has partnered with NASA since the 1960s, when the auto giant made navigation systems for the Apollo missions. More recently, GM worked on the Lunar Roving Vehicle.

GM robot work to lead to real-world usage

Technologies developed or fine-tuned for humanoid robots -- born of a partnership with NASA and scheduled to head to the International Space Station on Wednesday -- are expected to lead to real-world, street-level applications.

General Motors' R2, short for Robonaut 2, dressed in his debonair white Nomax space-suit skin and shiny helmet with matching backpack, demonstrated his fine motor skills, five-camera vision, strength and trouble-shooting skills at GM's Warren Technical Center on Wednesday.

"There are thousands of people who die, probably closer to 40,000, on our highways. It's always human error involved in these accidents," said Roland Menassa, lab group manager, manufacturing systems research for GM R&D. "Instead of putting the car into the robot, what if we start with the robot and make it into the car? The technology derived from this robot will help us reach autonomous driving capability. ... Autonomous driving saves lives. This robot is a way to learn about that technology."

It also has safety applications in plants, as GM continues to look for ways to make safer vehicles and in a safer way. Not only is R2 designed to use human tools, but it can sense when someone's near, work alongside humans and be easily adapted to new tasks.

The company denies that R2 will replace human workers, though the car industry as a whole has been using robots to do thousands of tasks, at the cost of human jobs, for decades. Jon Stewart even made fun of that on "The Daily Show" and GM itself satirized "robot stress" during its 2007 Super Bowl commercial.

Ken Knight, GM's executive director for global manufacturing, called it a "new class of machines that will complement our employees" and pointed out that the automaker has a long history in robotics, using tens of thousands worldwide.

Made primarily out of aluminum, R2 is 330 pounds and 3 feet, 4 inches tall (from the waist to the head; its legless torso sits on a stanchion attached to a wheeled platform) with a wing span of 8 feet and biceps any body builder would kill for. It travels as fast as seven feet per second and has more than 350 sensors, five cameras and a belly full of computer brains.

Toyota and Honda also have humanoid robots. The former's come in wheeled and walking versions that can be used for assistance, elder care and manufacturing, though it's best known for playing musical instruments. Honda's robot, named Asimo, is used as a school science ambassador and could someday be used to help the elderly and people with disabilities and to do dangerous jobs, like cleaning up toxic spills and firefighting. Asimo once even conducted the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

GM declined to say how much it has spent on the R2 project.

"It has really captured the imagination of the world," said Alan Taub, GM's vice president of global research and development. "This robot is not made to play games."

Ron Diftler, NASA's robonaut project chief, said what GM touts as "the most dextrous humanoid robot in the world" will help astronauts by handing them tools and completing certain tasks on their behalf. Astronaut Cady Coleman has been trained to control R2, which is wired and controlled through a computer, but has some independent thinking abilities.

"We've been allowed to have our dream come true," Coleman said about the robonaut collaboration. "It's helping both sides."



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Factory work is in R2's future

Christina Rogers / The Detroit News

General Motors Co.'s experimental robot, Robonaut 2, made an appearance at GM's Warren Tech Center Wednesday, where it shook hands, lifted dumbbells and curled its biceps in efforts to show off its human-like dexterity ahead of its space mission early next year.

GM is working with NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston to develop the robot, nicknamed R2. It will serve the dual purpose of helping to further robotic technology in space and on the assembly line.

In 2007, the Detroit-based automaker dispatched researchers to Houston to work alongside NASA's engineers on the robot project. GM declined to disclose its investment, saying only that it paid NASA to acquire some technology used in the robot's development.

GM first teamed with NASA in the 1960s, to make navigation systems for its Apollo missions.

GM has two prototypes of the R2, one of which will travel to NASA's space station in February. The R2 consists of a white torso, an orange head shaped like a helmet, and two massive arms with hands that can grab, carry and hold flexible objects without breaking or tearing them — an improvement over less-agile industrial robots.

Alan Taub, GM's vice president of global research and development, said technology refined in the robot could make its way into cars and machinery working the assembly line.

The sensing technology, in particular, could have some automotive uses, enabling vehicles to detect and react to objects on the road, change lanes and cruise, GM officials say.

"This wasn't made just to play games," Taub said. "This robot was designed to work alongside astronauts and to work alongside people in the production of safer vehicles."

The robot has human-size hands with slim fingers and opposable thumbs, allowing it to share tools with workers and mimic their tasks.

Automakers have for years used robots to perform dangerous or difficult factory jobs. Honda Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. have advanced the technology further, developing robots with an impressive range of capabilities.

Toyota's robot, for instance, can play the trumpet; Honda's can keep pace when walking next to a human.

"For GM, they don't have this background," said analyst Jim Hall of 2953 Analytics in Birmingham. "This is their start."

Hall said robotic programs can become a distraction for automakers, unless they directly improve their core products: cars and trucks.

And GM doesn't build manufacturing robots, he added.

Even so, GM says it plans to put prototypes of the R2 in its plants next year and is in talks with robot makers about using some of the technology, said Susan Smyth, GM's chief scientist for global manufacturing.

The automaker, though, doesn't see the R2 or any robot as a replacement for its best and most flexible workers — humans.

"It's about machines replacing machines," Smyth said.

Rather, the robots will work with human workers and pick up tough or tedious tasks, such as lifting and holding materials that are heavy or awkwardly sized.

The R2 will perform a similar role in space, assisting astronauts with routine and cumbersome tasks. However, GM and NASA are still working to improve the robot's design enough for a space walk.

In its upcoming mission, the R2 will remain inside the shuttle.

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20101209/AUTO01/12090349/Factory-work-is-in-R2’s-future#ixzz17ckEWxTQ

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