Robots Get Ready To Dive Into Space

January 15, 1993|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,Staff Writer

COLLEGE PARK -- Hey kids!

Imagine a place where you can surround yourself with video screens and joysticks and play with remote-controlled robots, or put on SCUBA gear and swim with the robots in a 50-foot-deep indoor pool.

Well, do your homework, because you'll have to be pretty smart to join Dr. David L. Akin and his young team at the University of Maryland's Space Systems Laboratory. The NASA-funded engineering lab is dominated by the brand-new, $1.7 million Neutral Buoyancy Research Tank, where engineers and students are experimenting with free-floating robots that may one day help astronauts build and maintain space stations and satellites in orbit.

By testing the robotic systems in the simulated weightlessness of the tank's clear blue water, scientists can learn which will work best in outer space.

Looking like scaled-up versions of the tiny, crab-like robots from the movie "Batteries Not Included," the mechanical marvels bobbed and bubbled their way around the tank yesterday, pTC taking video pictures and lugging aluminum pipe.

"We're developing a data base on how to operate robots in space," said Dr. Akin, 39, an associate professor of aerospace engineering and the lab's director. "What we say is, 'Here's a piece of hardware, and here's what it can do and what it can't do.' " One of the things it can't do, Dr. Akin insisted, is replace people in space.

"One of my pet peeves is people who say it's robots vs. humans," he said. "It's going to be many years before we have robots capable of doing everything humans can do."

Instead, robots like these will be used to do the routine, boring work, leaving people to tackle the real challenges of space. "Humans are a very limited resource in space," Dr. Akin said. "Using humans to change the light bulbs on the Space Station . . . is not that interest- ing."

What astronauts do need are robotic tools to extend their senses and their muscle -- tools like SCAMP and BAT.

SCAMP -- for Supplemental Camera and Maneuvering Platform -- is a black, 200-pound beach ball-size robot designed to carry video cameras where astronauts can't go. Yesterday, it was humming around the tank, driven by battery-powered propellers that would be replaced in space by compressed-gas thrusters.

A few feet away from the pool, lab staffer Rob Cohen, 23, stood in front of a bank of video screens and worked SCAMP's controls -- two joysticks to control its movements, and a computer terminal to monitor and adjust its systems.

SCAMP was taking pictures of BAT -- for Beam Assembly Teleoperator. BAT is a gray box the size of a home furnace, with four crab-like arms -- two bearing claws, one a grappler and the last a TV camera.

"We wanted to test the idea of a robot to help astronauts assemble structures in space," said Ram Singh, 22, an undergraduate in electrical engineering.

BAT was busy in the tank carrying structural pipe, while SCUBA-equipped staffers kept watch. A student at the controls sat in an old car seat, wearing a motorcycle helmet.

The helmet was attached to a Rube Goldberg contraption that allowed her to direct BAT's on-board cameras simply by pointing her head. Stereoscopic video screens mounted on the helmet gave her a three-dimensional view of what BAT saw under water. With mechanical hand controls, she could move BAT's arms and grippers.

"It's neat stuff," said graduate student Joe Graves.

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