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Three-armed robot to work on space station Print E-mail

A three-armed robot that could autonomously clamber around the outside of the International Space Station and help astronauts with maintenance work has successfully completed a round of tests on the ground.

Eurobot is being developed for the European Space Agency (ESA) by an industrial consortium led by Thales Alenia Space, which is based in Cannes la Bocca, France.

It has three arms similar in size and strength to human arms. But Eurobot's arms boast seven joints, making them more versatile than human ones. Each arm is also equipped with a camera.

 Eurobot is lowered into a water tank for tests at the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany (Image: ESA)

Eurobot has now undergone successful tests in a "neutral buoyancy facility" – a water tank used to simulate microgravity conditions – at ESA's European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany.

A model of the Columbus Laboratory, a European research module that may launch to the space station later in 2007, was put in the tank for the tests. The robot demonstrated its ability to move around the space station autonomously by climbing hand over hand on the lab's handrails. Watch Eurobot in action (video is nine times actual speed).

ESA astronaut Jean-François Clervoy donned a spacesuit and joined Eurobot in the tank to demonstrate human-robot interaction. Eurobot handed Clervoy a screwdriver, then helpfully aimed its light on a box while the astronaut unscrewed it.

Mundane tasks

The robot may eventually be used for mundane tasks that the astronauts would otherwise need to do, such as putting away tools and equipment after maintenance jobs.

Although Eurobot can do some things autonomously, it can also be controlled remotely. This would allow an astronaut inside the space station to complete tasks outside its hull.

"It could be a most useful aid," says Gianfranco Visentin, who heads ESA's automation and robotics section. "There is a shortage of crew time during all missions, so anything that improves the use of astronaut time is very desirable."

The model used for the tests has the same type of hand, ideal for grasping handrails, on each arm. Further work is under way to develop the version that will be flown on the space station. It will have three or four types of hands that can be mounted on the arms for different tasks.

"The tests went very well," says Philippe Schoonejans, ESA's project manager for Eurobot. "Not only has it been demonstrated that Eurobot can walk around an orbital station autonomously and safely, using no more than the existing EVA handrails, it is also becoming clear that Eurobot can really help the astronauts."

ESA envisions the robot eventually being used on human missions to the Moon and Mars.

Robots - Learn more about the robotics revolution in our continually updated special report.

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