A space robot made independently by China has reached “maturity”, according to the National Aerospace High Technology Space Robotic Engineering Research Center attached to the Beijing Institute of Control Engineering. Currently, the center plans to send the robot to work in the International Space Station.
The EMR Robot, also called Mr. E, is very strange in appearance. He has no head or body and only two “legs”. His legs are strewn with various conducting wires, sensors and other parts. The two legs are connected by a single joint. Researcher Dr. Chen Jianxin says that Mr. E will be able to walk throughout the space station just like any human being. While working, he can use one of his legs to fix himself to a surface and use the other leg as a dexterous “hand” that can be raised, turned and manipulated to tighten screws, insert and pull out plugs and grab floating objects.
Liang Bin, executive vice director of the research center, explains that “claws” equipped with various functions are attached to ends of the robot’s two mechanical arms. The “fingers” have various sensors and are used to implement precision tasks while the claws take care of gross motor actions.
Generally, space robots can be divided into a number of categories including fixed bottom robots, free-flying robots and free-floating robots. As part of the third generation of Chinese robots, Mr. E belongs to the free-floating robot category. Different to ground robots, space robots are light-weight and small in size to reduce the high costs associated with launching them into orbit. Current launch costs are about US$20,000 per 1, 000 grams. As a result, most space robots tend to only weigh a few dozen kilograms. Even more important is that robots must be able to cope with severe space environments including zero gravity, strong vacuums, intense radiation and extreme temperatures ranging from 200-300 centigrade.
Through orders given to the robot via advanced remote control facilities in the space station, Mr. E can be instructed to take up various roles in the space station including “space mechanic” in charge of assembly, testing and maintenance; “experiment assistant” to maintain scientific experiments in the cabin of the space station as well as “space guardian” to capture suspicious objects outside the cabin, clear space rubbish and maintain the security of space station. He can even become a “space doctor” and help cure “sick” satellites. With a few modifications, Mr. E will be able to land on moon and Mars to carry out scientific expeditions.
(china.org.cn by Wang Qian, November 30, 2002)