Meet Justin, the space robot. He’s clever, agile, wired to a human for control (of the robot, not the human) and he’s a possible solution for fixing orbiting satellites in the post-Shuttle era. If they’re dead, he can even fire them to their doom.
Justin’s the product of ongoing research by the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics at DLR, the German Aerospace Center, and like many of his robot brethren he’s been through a number of iterations in his life. His current version was just displayed at the ILA 2010 Space Pavilion at the Berlin Airshow, and he was demonstrated on video.
The bot is at heart similar to NASA’s Robonaut experimental unit, intended to act as a telepresence mechanoid to let a human operator perform tasks in space from the safety of a control room on earth (or possibly in orbit, safely inside a space ship while the robot is exposed to space). To this end the machine is packed with sensors and motors, and his huge “driver’s suit” is actually equipped with force feedback systems so the operator knows when the robots hands or limbs have contacted an object such as a satellite or tool. Also like Robonaut the bot is intended to be a torso robot only, as legs aren’t strictly needed in orbital operations.
But Justin’s designers think his purview may be a little bigger than Robonaut’s, as the U.S. bot will be mainly intended for ISS activity, and Justin will be mounted on his own satellite. This gives the robot the chance to maneuver in orbit, and thus to actually hunt down and grapple to satellites, where he can fix problems or swap out errant parts. And he can, by judicious application of some rocket thrusts, toss dead units out of orbit, so they burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere. In the post-Space Shuttle era, this sort of capability could be incredibly useful, allowing extended lifespan for satellites and systems that would otherwise fail without human attention, and even cleaning up of debris from the space lanes without risk to human life.
DLR intends Justin eventually to be self-controlling though. And love robots as we do, that just conjures up images of runaway robotic destructathons, straight out of sci-fi movies or even Robot Wars (and we’re not fooled by his cutesy human-like name: We know his middle name is Killalot).