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Robots have been around in science fiction for nearly 90 years. The word 'robot' itself was coined by Karel _apek , a Czech writer, in a play called Rossums Universal Robots. It's real meaining is serf or slave.

What is robonaut?

Robonaut is an anthropomorphic robot that will live on the International Space station. If something is anthropomorphic is shows human like characteristics.

Anthropomorphic robot

There are over 8 million robots in existence, most are industrial models designed to use special tools and just do one specific job. This is the exact opposite of what robonaut is designed to do. Robonaut has tob be very anthropomorphic because it is designed to work in the same places and with the same tools that humans use. This is what makes robonaut special.

Robots - Factory and Military

It needs to be able sense its changing environment. It is not just plonked onto a factory floor to stand in one spot with the same environment and task to perform for its whole lifespan. It needs to move and adapt its behaviour. Humans do this automatically. To get a robot to do this is extraordinarily difficult. It needs to be able to sense its environment, recognise where it is and predict what's likely to be around the next corner. It needs to be able to know how it is orientated and how to get itself into the proper orientation if it isn't the way up it should be. It needs to be able to recognise when it has made a mistake and be able to correct it. All these tricks are very human and very difficult to achieve with a machine.

Robotiaid ar linell gynhyrchu ceir.

A human machine?

The first thing that you notice when you look at robonaut is that it has a head, and just like human heads it contains the sense organs. In fact it contains five cameras, two visible light cameras that are used for stereoscopic views, like humans. This allows the robot to judge distances. There are also two backup cameras and an infra red (heat) camera where the mouth should be. This goes one better than people and can see in the dark and detect possible malfunctions by seeing 'hot spots'.

At the moment it doesn't have legs. By and large they are a waste of time in micro gravity and simply get in the way. It has been postulated that if humans were to be born in, and lived permanently in these conditions their legs would barely develop and just trail behind like pieces of string never growing significant muscles. Truly space dwelling humans would never be able to come back to the harsh gravity of Earth. They could almost constitute a new species. Weird!


Robonaut is also a tad on the chunky side. He weighs 136Kg (23.5 stone), which is about double the average human, so unnecessary bits are best left behind. It is imagined that one day he may be able to be fitted with legs if mankind ever venture back to the moon or on to Mars.


Robonaut's really clever parts are his hands. He needs to be able to use the same tools as the astronauts so he needs to have very sophisticated hands and he has them. Four fingers and a thumb on each hand each with full articulation and independent movement. Each finger can grab with a force of over 20 Newtons, so he has a very firm handshake. The really, really clever bit, though, is that he has a sense of touch. He knows how hard he is gripping and can adjust the force according to the needs of the object. Force sensors in each finger provide instant feedback, just like in our hands.

In fact Robonaut has a huge range of built in magnetic sensors that track the movement of the head torso and arms. Robonaut knows where he is, how he is orientated and where he is looking. This sounds quite simple, all animals do this effortlessly, but trying to design a machine to do this is a huge technical challenge. Nature has a 3 billion year advantage when it comes to working all this stuff out. Robonaut may just be the first of a long lineage of metal helpers.

Big Questions

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