A vision that could soon come true: this robonaut (here in an artist's representation) is up for a job at the International Space Station, ISS.DLR is developing a robot to replace people in space
A vision that could soon come true: this robonaut (here in an artist's representation) is up for a job at the International Space Station, ISS.
What sounds like science fiction for the layperson is becoming reality at the German Aerospace center (DLR) in Oberpfaffenhofen. In a few years the Institute of Robotics and Mechatronics wants to send robots into space to replace astronauts. The idea at present is to construct a "robonaut" who can travel over thousands of kilometers in order to repair far distant satellites. This institute has also performed pioneer work in medicine technology.
Visions are the thing at this DLR institute, which is one of the largest of its kind in Europe. This is because its director, Professor Gerd Hirzinger, has lots of them. For example, he talks about "a car that refuses to cause an accident" or about robots who stand ready to assist old or infirm people 24 hours a day. And of course about those robonauts, who go out into space and prevent defective satellites from crashing into the earth. These scientists have already proved that their dreams are not all that far away, especially as far as prestigeous space operations are concerned. The breakthrough for the institute, according to Hirzinger, was the 1993 D2 mission, when "we showed for the first time that one can also do a lot from the ground," as he proudly remarked. From Earth the scientists could steer their robot arm, named "Rotex", so precisely that it was possible for it to capture a freely floating object in the microgravity of space, despite the fact that the command signal took six seconds to reach the robot from Earth. In 1999 the institute managed to program from a distance the first free flying space robot, ETSVII, owned by Japan's space agency NASDA, and to so control it that it could bring its satellite into another position by means of "swimming movements."
The institute is currently cooperating with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), according to Gerd Hirzinger, in order to prepare for remote control of a new, spectacular robot arm on the International Space Station (ISS). But the institute by no means limits its work to space activities. Especially in medical technology the staff has done pioneer work in recent years. Thanks to robot technology, the surgeons of tomorrow won't have to inflict large wounds on their patients, even during elaborate operations. According to Professor Hirzinger, the surgeon will sit in front of a large monitor and remotely control a robot arm which is inserted into the patient's body through a small cut.
According to Gerd Hirzinger, operations are already being carried out according to this principle at the Klinikum Großhadern, at Munich's heart center, in Leipzig, and other places using equipment from the USA. "The surgeons tell us that it's like Christmas for them," reports Professor Hirzinger, whose staff are now developing for the first time a greatly improved European system of this type.
That the institute works economically can be seen from some figures which Gerd Hirzinger presents. Thanks to collaboration with large companies—like the robot manufacturer KUKA and the automobile companies Porsche and BMW - the institute finances itself to 40 per cent. Like with the "Space Mouse," originally developed to steer the robot arm "Rotex" and now connected to 100,000 computers worldwide. This mouse, which is primarily used for three-dimensional graphics programs, is considered to be the "most successful European computer peripheral" of all time.