Robot performance moves NASA

30 November 2010

Marcus Hold with Robothespian 3
Marcus Hold with Robothespian 3

A Cape Canaveral tour guide will have the same Maxon motors as the Mars Rover.

A versatile robot actor, created in the UK, has beaten off international competition to become the public face of NASA’s world-famous Kennedy Space Centre.

First developed in 2006 by Cornish company Engineered Arts, Robothespian stands five feet nine inches tall, with a full range of upper-body movement and startlingly human eyes.

Now, space agency NASA has decided to employ the £79,000 robot’s third generation as a figurehead to meet and greet visitors at its Cape Canaveral base.

Robothespian 3’s lifelike, humanoid movements are powered by a combination of compressed air ‘muscles’ and Maxon motors.

A mixture of Maxon’s high performance A-max and neodymium magnet-powered RE-max motors are used to give the robot’s hands, arms and torso a reliable and realistic performance.

Engineered Arts’ Director Will Jackson says: “Robothespian 3 is at the cutting edge of bringing technology into the arts. For him to appear natural and engage the audience, his movements need to be as quiet and precisely controlled as possible – but he also has to cope with long hours, greeting over 1.5 million visitors per year. Maxon motors are ideal for that challenging combination of demands, delivering absolute precision with the reliability we need.”

Although Robothespian will be new to NASA, its motors will not be. No fewer than 78 brushed RE motors are currently in active duty on the surface of Mars, powering key functions on the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers that have so far exceeded their anticipated lifespan by almost seven years.

Following its success, Engineered Arts has already started work on a further 20 Robothespians, which will be completed by March 2011. The company has now given the latest robot the powers of object tracking and speech recognition, enhancing its ability to interact with NASA’s guests, and it has recently started producing robots for research purposes.

Maxon motor Senior Sales Engineer Ian Bell says: “Robothespian will be a great addition to the Space Centre, and Engineered Arts deserves every credit, as a growing UK company, for winning such a high-profile order against strong, worldwide competition. It’s great to see Maxon motors being used at NASA once again. You might even say, for reliability, power and performance, they’re out of this world!”

The image shows Marcus Hold with Robothespian 3, the new addition to NASA’s Kennedy Space Centre (Credit: Simon Burt Photography).

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