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This robot could help humans conquer space

This robot could help humans conquer space

The next few years will be crucial for space exploration, with manned missions to the Moon as NASA wants to establish a continued presence in space. This will require technologies that help humanity in these inhospitable places, and a robot being developed at Harvard could play a role in that.

Engineers at Harvard's School of Engineering and Applied Science (SEAS) are working on flexible, autonomous technologies to be side-by-side with humans in space habitats. These tools may have needs that we cannot even imagine here on Earth.

“What happens if a meteorite breaks through the natural environment between missions and the crew isn't there to fix it,” asks Justin Werfel, senior robotics researcher at SEAS. “Or, if this happens during crew time, the astronauts may be busy with other emergencies. Likewise, in routine situations, there are many routine maintenance tasks that take up valuable time from the astronauts, from replacing filters to cleaning things. I would really like to The habitat is able to handle as much as it can on its own, which means robots will do the job.

Astronaut robots

One of the main difficulties the team faces is developing multi-functional machines that can perform human functions. Most industrial robots, such as those used to build cars or storage warehouses, are highly specialized and perform only a few specific tasks. In space this should be different.

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“Human hands can adapt to many roles, including those that require high precision, require large forces, or those that can benefit from compliance,” Wood said. “This project attempts to capture similar adaptive behavior to increase the range of tasks possible with a single clutch.”

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The team then developed what they call a finger gripper made of ligands, which can be reshaped to change the number of finger joints. The device has three modes.

  • In the former, the fingers are short and unbent, allowing them to grip objects firmly and securely;
  • In the second mode, the fingers gain articulation to allow the handle to perform manual manipulation, allowing you to move and rotate objects without letting go;
  • The latter mode adds two additional joints, allowing the fingers to passively adapt to the shape of the object and distribute contact pressure, which is useful for grasping thin or irregularly shaped objects.

According to the researchers, soft robots may be safer to operate around humans than traditional rigid robots, and can deform to compress more easily in tight spaces, but their softness also means they lack the strength needed for some work.

Therefore, the team is working on a robotic arm that can be strengthened when necessary. Each part is made of soft joints, which individually have only a small range of motion, but together can bend the arm 90 degrees. Certain actuators placed along the spine and joints can create localized stiffness in the body, allowing the arm to pick up or move a heavy object.

“Rather than elevating a robot to human level, we aim to bring tasks down to robot level and build something that both robots and humans can easily operate,” Werfel said.