Robots are really cool. They also hold the promise of freeing humans from the drudgery of menial chores like vacuuming and cleaning in the future. A robot with the dexterity and agility to mimic human motion and our ability to manipulate tools is a big deal in the space industry. If we can get a robot that can work tools with fine motor control, we can use robots in instances where the environment is too dangerous for humans. This is one of NASA’s goals with the Robonaut 2 robot that is aboard the ISS right now.
R2 is going to be useful in space thanks in part to his agile hands. NASA isn’t the only space agency that is working on robot designs. In Germany, the DLR has a new flagship robot that looks like a toy compared to Robonaut. The German robot is called Rollin’ Justin and when it comes time for the robots to play baseball, RJ will be a good catcher. The bot has been designed with the ability to catch a ball thrown at it with 80% accuracy. That is about as good a catch percentage as my 6-year-old has.
Rollin’ Justin is able to use sensors to detect the flight path of the ball thrown at it and then move its hands within 2cm of the predicted flight path. The hands adjust really quickly too. Rollin’ Justin can move his hand to the predicted spot in only five milliseconds. RJ can also be seen in the video below making a cup of coffee. Once it can clean toilets and wash dishes I am buying one. The processing power needed to predict the flight path is so large that RJ relies on an external computer. The Germans should have started teaching RJ to catch with a wrench; if you can catch a wrench, you can catch a ball.