Robonaut 2


Robonaut 2, developed jointly by NASA Johnson Space Center and General Motors, is the latest generation of humanoid robots. It is a highly dexterous anthropomorphic robot designed to perform simple tasks and act as an assistant to human operators. Robonaut 2, or R2, is made up of multiple component technologies and systems including vision systems, image recognition systems, sensor integrations, tendon hands, control algorithms, and more. R2 was launched aboard the STS-133 Space Shuttle mission in 2011 to the International Space Station (ISS). In 2014, a mobility platform was added. R2, which was initially deployed as a torso-only humanoid restricted to a stanchion, was augmented with two new legs for maneuvering inside the ISS. R2 is the first dexterous anthropomorphic robot in space, and the first US-built robot at the space station. R2 is a permanent resident at the ISS. [1]

Source: NASA, 2018 [2]

More information on the history and capabilities of Robonaut 2 can be found here.


With near human level dexterity, the Robonaut 2 can potentially take on simple, repetitive and dangerous tasks typically done by humans, while using the same tools as a human astronaut, minimizing the need for special accommodations for a robot worker. [3]

Robonaut 2 could also potentially serve during a robotic precursor mission, where R2 would bring a set of tools for the precursor mission, such as setup or geologic investigation. Future missions could then supply additional tools. [4]


NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC) and General Motors teamed up to create the R2, with the Robotics Systems Technology Branch within JSC’s Engineering Directorate serving as the lead. The team also received help from Oceaneering Space Systems engineers. [5] R2 technologies have the potential to impact a number of industries, including logistics and distribution, medical and industrial robotics, as well as hazardous, toxic, or remote environments. [6]


Robonaut was designed to be the most dexterous robot ever created, able to use its hands to do work beyond the scope of previously introduced humanoid robots. R2’s designers intentionally built the robot with a very similar joint structure to people in order to mimic human motion.  They installed ‘tendons’ inside the forearm that pull and control the fingers in various motions, much as human fingers would. [7]

In addition, Robonaut is equipped with a variety of sensors. These sensors help guide the robot through semi-autonomous operations and interact with its surroundings and enable it to work safely with humans. R2 is equipped with “force sensors” that give it a sense of touch. For example, touching the robot’s arm will stop it in its track. It additionally has sensors that tell it where its limbs are. R2’s upper body has more than 350 sensors. [8]

Source: NASA, 2010 [9]


On February 24th, 2011, the final Space Shuttle mission launched, carrying Robonaut to the International Space Station. [10]

Robonaut 2 was powered up for the first time on August 22, 2011. The ISS team put R2 into motion for the first time in microgravity on October 13th. These arm motions helped Robonaut 2 to adapt to the difference in gravity, its software ‘learning’ how to interact with the new environment. [11]

On February 15th, 2012, Robonaut 2 extended its arm to shake ISS commander Dan Burbank’s hand, the first such robot-human interaction in space. [12]

On March 14th, 2012, Robonaut 2 performed its first real work onboard the ISS. R2 was tasked with measuring air velocity from an air vent inside the Destiny lab. This task, while seemingly mundane, is the type of everyday task R2 was designed to perform. Astronauts have to measure the airflow in front of vents inside the station to ensure that none of the ventilation ductwork gets clogged or blocked. Robonaut is particularly well suited to this task, as it requires the air velocity sensor to be held perfectly still and no air disturbances, which can be difficult for a living, breathing astronaut floating in microgravity. R2 successfully took the air velocity reading, and while it took much longer to accomplish this task than a human astronaut would need, it was a successful demonstration of Robonaut’s ability to use tools and accomplish needed tasks aboard the ISS. [13]

In March 2013, NASA announced its engineers were developing the climbing legs for R2. The new legs will enable R2 to help with regular and repetitive tasks inside and outside the ISS. The goal of this initiative is to free up the crew for more critical work, including scientific research. [14]

In August 2014, climbing legs that were built by NASA were attached to R2 on the ISS. Although the legs are designed to work both inside and outside the station, additional upgrades are required to R2’s upper body to allow it to work outside the space station. [15]  The leg upgrade encountered problems, and as a result Robonaut has been largely disabled for the last several years. [16]

In February 2018, NASA announced that it is bringing Robonaut back to Earth to be fixed. The root of the problems encountered is believed to be based in differences between the space station Robonaut, an R2-B model, and the robots on Earth, which are R2-Cs, a later version. Robonaut was prepared and stowed in preparation for return to Earth on SpaceX-14. [17]


Robonaut 5, or Valkyrie, was designed and built by the JSC Engineering Directorate to compete in the 2013 DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Trials. The design builds on experience gained designing Robonaut 2 and includes improved electronics, actuators and sensing capability compared to earlier NASA humanoid robotic systems. The team also modified the robot to increase the reliability and durability of the hands, the performance of the ankle, and the robot’s perception capability. Valkyrie weighs in at 300 pounds, stands 6 feet 2 inches, and features 44 degrees of freedom. [18]

In September 2016, NASA announced the Space Robotics Challenge, a $1 million prize competition focused on improving robot dexterity. Under the challenge, teams must program a virtual robot, modeled after Robonaut 5, to complete simulated tasks related to a mission on Mars. A qualifying round was held from mid-October through mid-December 2016 and finalists will be announced in January 2017 with the final virtual competition held in June 2017. Software developed through the challenge will be transferable to other robotics systems such as the Robonaut 2 and future models. [19]

In July 2018, NASA released an “OPPORTUNITY NOTICE TO PARTICIPATE IN ITS CENTENNIAL CHALLENGES PROGRAM AS AN ALLIED ORGANIZATION” for Phase 2 of the Space Robotics Challenge to be conducted for the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s Centennial Challenges Program. [[20]]  Space Robotics Challenge updates and news are posted at the following website.

Updated September 2018 by Diane Meade

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