The Long Arm In Space

October 2011
By Bryan Bergeron

This summer — with the launch of the Atlantis — marked the end of the NASA Space Shuttle Program and, along with it, the use of that amazing robotic arm. The Canadarm — first flown on a shuttle mission in 1981 — has six joints, is 50 feet long, and can lift 586,000 pounds in space. I’m not sure how to interpret that last figure, given things are supposedly weightless in orbit, but it’s fascinating to note that the hollow arm can’t even support its own weight on the ground.


In the ‘80s, a major breakthrough in robotics was the ability to control the arm with a joystick. Today, the joystick as a human interface to robotics is commonplace. The fly-by-wire joystick and associated algorithms are prominent additions to the growing list of space spinoffs. As a roboticist, it’s easy to get caught up in the strength of materials, mechanics of the two shoulder joints, and other technical issues.


However, the greatest contribution of the Canadarm to robotics is that it has provided inspiration for thousands of would-be and soon to be scientists, engineers, and astronauts.


The inspiration of something just at the edge of what’s possible can change the trajectory of open minds of any age. Who wouldn’t want to operate the Canadarm in space, or to be involved in creating a new and improved version for, say, a Mars mission? With the privatization of space transport, it’s possible that there’s a spot for you or someone you know to work on the next robotic arm or other robotic program that will directly impact space exploration.


I can still remember as an engineering student, visiting the NASA Michoud Assembly plant just outside of New Orleans, where they produced external fuel tanks. I remember the stacks of aluminum rings that formed the internal skeleton of the tanks, lathed to a few thousandths of an inch. Then, there was the huge robot finisher that rotated a fuel tank while spraying on a thin coating of sealant. It wasn’t my first exposure to robotics, but it was the most significant. I can still remember every machine and robot in the plant, and thinking how fortunate the swarms of engineers and scientists were to be part of the effort.


What’s the next big inspiration for robotics engineers and enthusiasts? I can’t point to a singular project as prominent and obviously critical as the Canadarm.
However, there are niche projects that each draw significant followings. The military is obviously heavily invested in robotics — from studies on autonomous supply trucks to rescue robots that can extract a wounded soldier from the field.


Of course, there’s the entire weapons development field, with smart missiles that can navigate and track their targets autonomously. It’ll probably be some time before developments in military robotics trickle down to consumer goods.


In the meantime, there is the growing field of surgical robotics which promises better results with smaller incisions and shorter healing times. There’s the home robotics market that promises to make our lives easier as we become old, arthritic, and less mobile. In short, there’s more than enough ‘important’ work to do in robotics. It’s simply a matter of enthusiasm, focus, and preparation.


By the way, the retirement of the shuttle fleet doesn’t mark the end of robotic arms in space. The Space Station’s Canadarm2 (also made in Canada) remains a useful tool to the astronauts. For more information on the Canadarm see www.nasa.gov. Check out www.sti.nasa.gov/tto for details on commercial spinoffs from the space program. SV


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