As a member of the UK Institute of Engineering and Technology, and a keen science fiction fan, it is always great fun when I see mention of advanced robotics applications in space!
This month sees the article by Piers Bizony on "Robonaut flies in". This is a great article outlining the mission on the NASA Robonaut. Robonaut was included in NASA's STS-133 payload for testing on the International Space Station.
Wind River has been working with NASA on many space missions (See Mike Deliman's Blog), and this mission is no exception. Robonaut is running VxWorks on PowerPC based embedded systems at the "heart" of its control system.
One interesting aspect of the article is the discussion of safety. Safety, as we know, has many aspects and possible solutions. For industrial robots, anything that impacts safety is usually mitigated by shutting down the system to prevent further damage or harm. For Avionics systems involved in flight controls this of course would be a bad thing and the safety argument has to allow for continued aircraft operation after such an impact.
Robonaut in this respect has an additional challenge, it has to figure out if sensor readings mean it was supposed to interact with it's fellow astronauts or if they are a safety issue, and then act accordingly.
In actual fact, Robonaut is semi-autonomous as the article goes on to describe, with a Human operator controlling and "sensing" what Robonaut is doing – much like an Avatar – the control and feedback here is critical and hence the use of VxWorks as the trusted foundation for its control system.
There is also a really interesting side panel article on use of Robonaut for a moon landing, with the human operator on the ground, where an additional challenge is the 1s delay in signal transmission from the command and feedback signals! This mission was also covered by Business Insider with the headline "NASA Will Save $149.5 Billion Sending A Robot Instead Of A Human To The Moon
This reminds me of another film I saw recently with Bruce Willis, Surrogates, I wonder if this is the beginning of a new era??