Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

UMD students prepare robots for the final frontier

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Brenda Ahearn⁄The Gazette
Dave Akin of the Space Systems Lab at the University of Maryland, College Park Jan. 25 stands next to Ranger, a robotic arm used for research on how to make robots more effective.
University of Maryland, College Park Aerospace Engineering Department students are working to ensure that their robots have the right stuff.

Dru Ellsbery, 21, a senior undergraduate, from Allentown, Pa., is designing the electronics for a prototype arm that will attach to a space suit, enabling an astronaut to retrieve tools.

‘‘The current mockup would be like having another arm so it would make certain tasks for a person in a space suit easier to complete,” he said. ‘‘It would be like having three arms instead of two.”

Madeline Kirk, an undergraduate in aerospace engineering, is working on manufacturing and testing a docking mechanism that she designed for one of the lab’s main robots, CAMP Supplemental Camera and Maneuvering Platform.

Graduate student Sharon Singer is working on improving the cooperative performance of operational and servicing activities between humans and robots.

Much of this is made possible through federal funding.

The department is in line to receive $900,000 in federal funding allocated in December by Congress for robotic research.

David Akin, UMD Space Systems lab director, works with students on the robots.

‘‘We’re trying to build a robot that has the equivalent dexterity of a human,” he said. ‘‘The robots they have now, are 50 feet to 60 feet tall. We’re trying to build robots that are about the same size as humans so that they would be able to build a space station themselves.”

Comparing the robots to the popular Star Wars movies, Akin said the robots are less C3PO-style humanoid robots and more block-like such as R2D2.

‘‘The big challenge in building these robots are in the mechanisms so they can work in very cold and extreme temperatures swinging from hot to cold,” he said.

The robots would be tasked with building larger telescopes in space approximately a million miles from the Earth, Akin said.

Because the robot would be so far away, it would be difficult for a human to directly control it, Akin said. ‘‘You want the robot to be capable of working without human direction,” he said. ‘‘They can be used, and when they’ve completed their task, they can be thrown away.”

To simulate the weightlessness of space, UMD students utilize a neutral buoyancy tank.

Students must be certified in scuba diving to swim with the robots in the tank, which is 25 feet deep, 50 feet wide tank.

‘‘The coolest thing ... is getting to scuba dive with robots,” Kirk said. ‘‘It’s quite an experience being in the neutral buoyancy tank with two other divers and a moving robot twice my size.”

Singer said the efforts help combine the skills of robots and humans in a cooperative team to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of on-orbit space activities.

‘‘The ideas and concepts ... performed here in the lab is not the type of material that currently exists in textbooks,” she said. ‘‘Maybe one day, our work will be studied by future students who will in turn build on our experiences.”

E-mail Deborah Stoudt at